Did Chris Matthews guess Arlen Specter would switch parties?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 29 2009 6:06 PM

The Silence of Chris Matthews

Did the host of MSNBC's Hardball guess Specter would switch parties?

Chris Matthews. Click image to expand.
Chris Matthews

What did Chris Matthews know, and when did he know it? His MSNBC rival Keith Olbermann asked him on the April 29 Countdown:

Olbermann: All right, your part in [the] Pennsylvania Senate equation. A bid for the Democratic nomination—

Matthews (joking): I have no idea—

Olbermann: It was on the table for you certainly, that's not a secret, it's not a secret that you chose no, and thankfully—for our benefit anyway—thankfully decided to stay with MSNBC. Did you have the foresight to have calculated this prospect for [Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen] Specter, calculating the possibility that he might have switched sides? Was that a factor in your experimentations or explorations?

Matthews: [Pause.]

Well, I did a little due diligence, a little reporting, I figured out what I thought the lay of the land looked like in the time I could do it and I was very much constrained by my role here what I could do in terms of just asking questions.

I did find a lot of comfort with a lot of good people. The mayor of Scranton, the chairman of the Philadelphia party, the chairman of the Allegheny [County] party, the governor of the state. I had wonderful feelings from them. I felt very good about if I decided to make a career change. My heart was here. I love what I do. I've been working 30 or 40 years to be an opinionated guy who bugs a lot of people. I bugged the Clinton crowd, I bugged the Republicans, I bugged the right, sometimes the netroots get mad at me. I love it! I love to argue politics. I don't mind getting hit once in a while. But I don't want to be a toady of a political party. And when you join these damn political parties, no matter which one it is, you end up buying the blue-plate special. You gotta buy card check, you gotta buy trade restrictions, you gotta do everything they want, you gotta eat it. And I didn't want to eat it.

Now Arlen is willing to eat it. This guy is willing to do anything to keep that Senate seat! Fine. If the voters like that and re-elect him next year, they know what they they're getting: a guy that will do anything to get that seat. This guy is the opposite of Edmund Burke. He doesn't stand for the people, he goes with the flow. He polled this election, he saw he couldn't win it in the Republican Party, so he switched to the Democratic Party.

My sense of Pennsylvania leaves me a little bit in the air right now because Pennsylvania for all its history was a genuinely moderate state. It was settled by the Quakers, it's a tolerant state historically, it does believe in middle-of-the-road politics, but it does believe in loyalty. And I think they're gonna find it very hard to believe that a guy, a politician, was loyal to a political party for a half a century that gave him elective office time after time after time, supported him, raised money for him, voted for him, believed in him, and then just like that when he sees a better opportunity, he splits to the other side. You gotta wonder about a guy's character who does that! I think. Now, the voters are gonna have to decide. And I have no idea what they're gonna decide. Maybe they won't have any better choice than him, and they'll be stuck with him. But you know, that's what politics is about. By the way, anybody who's mystified by this, keep your eye on these politicians because you may have principles as a voter, but don't count on them having any.

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Is that a "yes"?

Matthews' answer breaks down into three parts. The first part is an utterly uncharacteristic and seemingly flummoxed silence. The second part is the assertion, unthinkable in times past but possibly true today, that if you want total freedom to spout your political opinions you're better off working for a network news organization (at least its cable affiliate) than you are being a U.S. senator. The third part is a bilious and, it seems to me, weirdly personal denunciation of Specter as a spineless, opportunistic turncoat.

Here is what we know. As recently as December, Michael Calderone and Josh Kraushaar reported in Politico that Matthews was very likely to take the plunge. He had "already picked out a home in Philadelphia to establish residency in the state." He had discussed the matter with family over Thanksgiving and won "their full backing." Granted, it was possible this was all a ploy to renegotiate his MSNBC salary from $5 million a year up to Olbermann's reported $7.5 million. "But it's one thing to fuel a rumor of heading to a desk at a rival network," Calderone and Kraushaar wrote. "It's quite another to actively reach out to political players throughout Pennsylvania." FiveThirtyEight even reported rumors that Matthews was "staffing up" for the campaign. Polls put Matthews behind Specter in a general election matchup but within striking distance.

Then, on Jan. 7, Matthews told his staff he wouldn't run. Chuck Todd, NBC's White House correspondent, told U.S. News that Matthews didn't run because he couldn't answer the question, "What are you going to do when you get there?" Well, maybe. It's also possible Matthews decided to stay at MSNBC because his ratings were creeping back up, putting him in a better bargaining position with the MSNBC brass. But it's also possible that Matthews—whose ability to predict political outcomes is finely honed—acquired, in the course of his "due diligence," a sense that Specter might make the jump to the Democrats and screw everything up for him. The April 28 New York Times reports that Vice President Biden lobbied Specter hard to become one of the three Senate Republicans to support the stimulus bill in early February. Biden then spoke to Specter 14 times to urge him to switch parties as it became increasingly clear that Specter's stimulus vote had put him at serious risk of losing the GOP nomination. Did Matthews get wind that Specter might support the stimulus and guess correctly that doing so might push Specter into the Democratic primary? Did he pick up on other clues? Is that why today he can't think about Specter without seeing red? This weasel's opportunism cost me a Senate seat!

Maybe yes, maybe no. But it's interesting that when Olbermann asked him, Matthews didn't say no.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.