How would you label a Republican congressman who was opposed to abortion but supported a woman's right to choose? Who didn't favor same-sex marriage but fought against laws banning it? Who voted to limit tax cuts for the rich and to raise the minimum wage for the poor? Who believed immigrants should have a pathway to citizenship?
If you guessed either a moderate or somebody who needed to switch political parties, you would be correct on both counts.
And you also would be describing Arlen J. Specter, the Wichita-born and Russell-raised politician who died Sunday. He was 82.
Specter was a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, making his mark as a skilled politician capable of working both sides of the aisle. A political opportunist at heart, he even served on both sides of the aisle -- starting as a Democrat, spending the next 40-plus years as a Republican, then switching back.
Through it all, he claimed a centrist position. And made it clear he was extremely uncomfortable with fellow legislators at either extreme.
Specter also found himself at the center of many salient matters of national concern. While serving as counselor on the Warren Commission, he developed the single-bullet theory to explain the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the Senate, Specter was reviled by the right for effectively quashing the Supreme Court justice bid of Judge Robert H. Bork. The left came unglued when Specter aggressively questioned Professor Anita Hill's testimony during the hearings for nominee Clarence Thomas. When the Senate voted on President Bill Clinton's articles of impeachment, Specter voted "not proven" for both counts.
Specter, a lawyer and Air Force veteran, was reputed for being stubborn and also for being an intellectual. But what we admire most was his belief in the political middle. Having bipartisanship allows not only routine bills to move through Congress but enormous acts capable of furthering the great experiment known as these United States of America.
During a short-lived run for the White House in 1995, Specter already was lamenting and denouncing the extreme Christian fringe. In 2011, in a memoir titled "Life Among the Cannibals," he discussed how partisanship had become the only game left in Washington.
"The fringes have displaced tolerance with purity tests," he wrote.
We are not impressed with lockstep politics in either party. The rise of the tea party has resulted in nothing but further hardening of those lines, as if that might have been possible. When compromise is defined as holding out long enough for the other side to agree with your position -- and one's not accused of losing their mind -- the nation is in trouble.
Sen. Arlen Specter was a reminder of how Congress used to be a body of action. We shall miss him.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry