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Interview with Senator Arlen Specter

November 3, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Arlen Specter is the first Jewish Republican to seek his party’s presidential nomination. He was born 65 years ago in Russell, Kansas, also the hometown of Sen. Robert Dole. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and received his law degree from Yale, then served two years in the United States Air Force. He first attracted national attention as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission in 1964. Specter was credited for developing the so-called “single assassin” theory of President Kennedy’s death. Specter returned to Pennsylvania, where he became an assistant attorney general and then was elected district attorney in Philadelphia. In 1980, he won election to the U.S. Senate. He was re-elected to a third term in 1992. Today, Specter serves on the Senate Judiciary, Appropriations, and Veterans Affairs Committees. When I talked with him yesterday, I asked him why he decides to run for President.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Because I have ideas that I want to see carried out, very important matters of tax policy, criminal law enforcement, health, education, and I’m very concerned about the Republican Party, the growth of a, of a fringe element. Pat Robertson says there’s no constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state, that it’s a lie of the left. Robertson and I went to the same law school at the same time, but apparently we studied different constitutions. But it was a real serious threat not only to the soul of the Republican Party but to the soul of America. If Robertson and Reed and Buchanan have their way, it would be a different America.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to voters who look at another U.S. Senator who’s running for President, Bob Dole, and say, he brings a lot of the same things to the table you do, including a reputation for being pretty much in the center of his party? What do you–what do you say to them about what you offer that he doesn’t?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I say that I’m the only pro-choice candidate running for the nomination. I say that I’m the only candidate who has hands-on experience on criminal law enforcement, which is a very, very big problem, an I say that unlike any of my opponents, I’m not shifting with the winds; I’m not trimming my sails; I have maintained the same positions on affirmative action, the same positions on immigration, and nobody else in the race can really say that.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think other candidates in the race are very definitely pandering to the religious right?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I think that Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, Jr. have pretty much taken over the party so far as this presidential campaign is concerned. Ralph Reed, Jr., schedules a press conference on his new Contract With America, and they have it in the Mansfield Senate Room. Who gives permission for that? I believe that only Arlen Specter is speaking out against that real threat.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think will be the consequences, though, if your party does nominate someone who espouses these views or agrees with these views?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I believe that if we knuckle to the demands of the intolerant right, that we will end up reelecting a president of the incompetent left. I think that it’s going to be a guarantee. We really need to concentrate on, on the core values that we talked about in 1994, smaller government, lower taxes, effective crime control, strong national defense. Look here, there is nothing in the Contract With America about any of the divisive social issues, not a word about abortion, not a word about school prayer. I’m personally very much opposed to abortion, but I want to take it out of politics. I think that Barry Goldwater was exactly right when he said let’s get the government off our backs, out of our pocket books, and out of our bedrooms; government has no place there. That’s really the true conservative point of view. Least government is the best government. You take a look at Pat Buchanan. He wants the government to be everywhere.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But you’ve made your support, for instance, for abortion rights a centerpiece of your candidacy. Yet it doesn’t seem so far to be generating the kind of money and support that you thought it would. I mean, if most of the Republican electorate is, as you believe, economically conservative but socially tolerant, why aren’t you doing better, why isn’t there more of a groundswell for you?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I have not made the pro-choice position the centerpiece of my campaign. The fact that I’m the only pro-choice Republican running for the nomination is a point that the media picks up. But if you take the centerpieces of my campaign, they’d be crime control, there’d be the flat tax. Here’s a tax return under an Arlen Specter presidency and an Arlen Specter flat tax–very pro-growth, increase the Gross National Product, my competitors want to cut the capital gains tax. I want to eliminate it. This would save 5 billion hours a year. My ideas on education and health care and on foreign policy from my position as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, those are really what I’ve been talking about, but there seems to come back to a focus on the choice issue, because I’m the only pro-choice candidate.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I want to talk about the flat tax, but I want to ask you one other thing, though, about the direction of the Republican Party. Ralph Reed has said that you’re the one who’s out of step with the way the party’s moving. His phrase was that you’re trying to buck an ongoing evolution of the Republican Party from one whose ideological center used to be on Wall Street, and now it’s located among religious conservatives.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, if Ralph Reed, Jr. is right, why isn’t there anything in the Contract With America, the centerpiece of the 1994 victories, about any of Ralph Reed’s issues, school prayer or abortion? The “New York Times” had a major poll earlier this week, last Monday, which verified exactly what I’ve been saying, that there–and these are voters in a Republican primary. There are more who are pro-choice–38 percent–to pro-life, 33 percent, and 76 percent feel that the anti-abortion plank ought not to be in the platform, and eight out of ten do not associate themselves with Ralph Reed’s position at all. But you see what has happened is that the conventional wisdom has been that if you have Arlen Specter’s credentials, pro-choice, and not knuckling to the fringe, that you don’t have a chance.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that’s why there are not more Republicans who believe as you do even in the race?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: That’s right. That’s why I think that the Republicans who believe as I do are on the sidelines, and they are very, very dispirited. But, but where I go, and people whom I touch, and those who hear me, I’ve gotten a lot of support.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Now, let’s turn to the flat tax–


MARGARET WARNER: –because that’s an issue in which you seem very much in step with many of your Republican rivals. I think Sen. Gramm, Pat Buchanan, Lamar Alexander are all for some sort of flat tax. How is yours different, if it is?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I’m not in step with my rivals on that. I’m way ahead of–there are four United States Senators running for the Republican nomination but only one, Arlen Specter, has put in legislation on the flat tax. My flat tax proposal–bring the card up again because people can see graphically on a postcard that their tax returns could be filled out in 15 minutes. I was asked the other day by the American Conservative Union what I’d like to be remembered for, and I said as the President who eliminated the Internal Revenue Service. What we have in America in this giant structure, this giant hierarchy of tax deductions which motivate people as to what they do. I say let’s eliminate all that social engineering, let productivity take place, and you’d see tremendous growth in America.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But let’s get very specific here. You would exempt certain things, and then you’d have what, 20 percent flax tax with exemptions for all investment income, is that right, mortgages, and charitable?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I allow two deductions for middle income Americans–charitable contributions up to $2500, home interest mortgage up to $100,000 in borrowing, because I think that’s necessary to get it passed, that there be no tax on interest because there’s no deduction for interest, no tax on dividends or capital gains, because both of them are already taxed in the corporate structure. Simple, pro-growth. Really, it’s an idea whose time has come.

MARGARET WARNER: If you were elected President and if the Congress were still under Republican control and you had a Republican House under Newt Gingrich, would you see yourself as an enthusiastic supporter of the direction he wants to go, or are there ways in which you would be trying to soften–that may be not a word you’d like–but, but to refine the direction that the House Republicans have been taking?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: My direction would be an Arlen Specter direction because I have always been independent, my own person and my own ideas.

MARGARET WARNER: But how would it differ?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I agree–I agree with what Speaker Newt Gingrich wants to do on the balanced budget. I think that is essential for the future of the country. But I would do it with a scalpel and not a meat ax. And I’ve already proved that I can do that, because I’m the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee which has jurisdiction over three big departments–Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education. And that unit had a $70 billion discretionary budget, and I was charged with the responsibility for cutting it by $8 billion. And we did that in my subcommittee, Sen. Tom Harkin and I did it with a scalpel and not a meat ax. So I would approach it with a heart for a lot of the very important programs that America now has.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you briefly about the campaign, itself. In the last finance report that came out, I think ending September 30th, your campaign was $500,000 in debt. How long can you keep going?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, were in debt by that amount that we had receivables on matching funds for almost a million dollars.

MARGARET WARNER: And you get those at the first of the year?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Yes. But, candidly, it is a difficult matter. We have not been able to get the traditional sophisticates because of the conventional wisdom that a pro-choice candidate doesn’t really have much of a chance. And I have to be candidate too that with Colin Powell coming on his book tour and on the sidelines that that has affected the mail, which we have been relying upon, but we’re struggling and we’re, we’re fighting. I’ve, I’ve won elections nobody thought was possible. I was the first Republican elected in Philadelphia in almost two decades. People had me counted out in 1992. They had my political obituary written, and I managed to win.

MARGARET WARNER: So give me a brief scenario for you breaking this thing open, winning.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, the scenario is that we do well and reasonably well in Iowa. I think a third place finish would surprise a lot of people. We have a strong organization in New Hampshire. There were ten counties, seven of the counties have Republican prosecuting attorneys, all seven have endorsed me. We might break through with a second place finish there. And once we can dispel the myth that a pro-choice candidate who has my views can win, I think the sky is the limit.

MARGARET WARNER: Your wife is a member of the city council in Philadelphia and is running for reelection again. If you’re elected, would your wife leave Philadelphia and come be First Lady?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I think that Councilwoman Joan Specter would stay right where she is. She’s very independent. She loves her work on city council. She’s done a great job, and I think she’d be right there.

MARGARET WARNER: You are also the first Jewish-American to seek the Republican nomination. How is that a factor in your candidacy, politically I mean, either a positive or a negative?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I believe that America’s ready for a Jewish President, and if it isn’t, it should be, and if the answers to both those questions are “no,” damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, Arlen Specter is running. It’s time we broke that myth.

MARGARET WARNER: And on a personal level, does it add any special, I don’t know, meaning or significance for you in this endeavor?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I don’t think religious persuasion does. What really adds a significance for me would be my background as a first generation American. Both of my parents were immigrants. I think I have a unique sense of the value of this country that I got from my father who literally walked across Europe to come to America, my mother, who came as a child at the age of five with her parents from a small town on the Russian-Polish border. I think I have some of that immigrant, first generation spirit that brings a sense of urgency and a sense of determination and the willingness to take on the giants, which is why I’m running, and why I think I have a chance to win.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you, Senator. Thanks very much.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Thank you, delighted.