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AN ATTACK ad from a former vice-admiral hit Senator Arlen Specter like a homing torpedo. Mr Specter was a moderate Republican for 44 years before bolting from his party last year. Leading Democrats in Washington were elated. For a few sweet months Mr Specter's switcheroo gave them a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But the Democratic rank-and-file beyond the Beltway never warmed to him. It was not just his grouchiness, which long ago earned him the nickname “Snarlin' Arlen”. It was the fact that he had been, for most of his long life, a Republican.
He lost a Democratic primary on May 18th to Joe Sestak, a veteran of three wars but a relative newcomer to politics, having been elected to Congress in 2006. The ad that sank Mr Specter's campaign began, simply: “I'm Joe Sestak, the Democrat.” Seldom has the definite article been so well-aimed. The ad then showed a haggard-looking Mr Specter saying: “My change in party will enable me to be re-elected.” Twice. It also showed Mr Specter being praised by George Bush and holding hands with Sarah Palin. It ended with the words: “Arlen Specter changed party to save one job. His, not yours.”
For true believers of either stripe, Mr Specter is a hard man to like. Conservatives loathed him even before he left his party. He is pro-choice on abortion. He tried to stop the warrantless wiretapping of calls between people in America and suspected terrorists abroad. He loves trial lawyers; his son has made a fortune suing hospitals. He opposed Mr Bush's surge of troops into Iraq, scoffing that it had no more chance of success than “a snowball in July”. He cast the deciding vote for Barack Obama's stimulus bill. He tipped the scales against Robert Bork, a ferociously articulate conservative nominee for the Supreme Court, whose demonisation by Democrats in 1987 is still hotly resented by Republicans. The National Review, a conservative magazine, berated him as “The Worst Republican Senator”. He may not be the most unreliable Republican, wrote John Miller, “but he is almost certainly the most harmful, because he is smart, ruthless and influential.”
Liberals love him no better. He voted for the invasion of Iraq and the Patriot Act. He backed Mr Bush's tax cuts. He helped usher John Roberts and Samuel Alito onto the Supreme Court. Before that he backed Clarence Thomas, the most conservative member of the current court, and eviscerated Anita Hill, a co-worker who accused Mr Thomas of sexually harassing her. Senator Specter boasted that he had “flat-out demoli[shed] her credibility”. Feminists fumed that he had humiliated a victim. To this day, only Justice Thomas and Ms Hill know what really happened. Nonetheless, Mr Specter acquired some unforgiving enemies, and he has a knack for not making friends. His manner is brusque and prosecutorial: “cold to colleagues and cruel to staff”, as the National Review said.
From the way people talk about him, you'd think he was SPECTRE, the cabal of rootless villains who used to menace James Bond. He must have done something right, however. He is Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator. It is no small feat to win five elections in a row in a swing state. In 2004 Pennsylvanians backed John Kerry by 51% to 48%, but Mr Specter held his seat by 53% to 42%. Even Mr Specter's detractors admit he has both brains and tenacity. He rose from humble roots: his father was a Ukrainian immigrant who worked as a pedlar and eventually owned a junkyard. As a young lawyer, he worked on the Warren Commission investigating John Kennedy's assassination. His conclusion—that a lone gunman did it—infuriated conspiracy theorists. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor (of Philadelphia), senator and governor before finally winning a Senate seat in 1980. He overcame a brain tumour, open heart surgery and Hodgkin's lymphoma. His memoir was called “Never Give In”.
He is a moderate in a country where the loudest voices applaud immoderation. When Republicans had a majority, he nonetheless urged his party's leaders not to change Senate rules to disempower the minority. He pushed for a more welcoming immigration policy. And if he is rude, so what? Someone needed to tell Joe Biden to pipe down, and Alberto Gonzales, Mr Bush's useless attorney-general, that his testimony “defie[d] logic and plain English”. Time, a centrist magazine, judged Mr Specter one of America's ten best senators in 2006.
But his fence-sitting sometimes verged on the ridiculous. During Bill Clinton's impeachment he refused to vote “guilty” or “not guilty”, opting instead for “not proven”, a verdict allowed in Scottish courts but not in America. He voted both for and against school vouchers, while sending his own children to private schools. When he was a Republican, conservatives grumbled that he voted conservatively only in the run-up to a Republican primary. Yet Harry Reid, the leading Democrat in the Senate, grumbled in his memoirs (written before Mr Specter changed party) that “Arlen Specter…is always with us when we don't need him.” After joining the Democrats, he voted with his new party 90% of the time.
He switched parties when he realised that he was going to lose a Republican primary. He lost the Democratic primary because Democrats don't trust him, either. With the national mood so hostile to incumbents, it probably did not help that he is the fifth-oldest senator, and sounds it. (He sometimes asks people with whom he disagrees if they have been smoking Dutch cleanser, a brand of cleaning powder that was apparently popular a long time ago.) Most of all, though, he showed how tough it is to be a centrist. Jim Hightower, a populist pundit, once jeered that “There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” For decades, Mr Specter was an agile armadillo, constantly dodging the two-way traffic. But this week, his footwork finally failed him.