Brendan Skwire has made no secret of his disdain for Arlen Specter. But before liberal Democrats rush to give their votes to Joe Sestak, Skwire wants the Pennsylvania congressman to answer a few questions.
You might think by the way Joe Sestak has presented himself that he's some sort of liberal foil to Arlen Specter, but the truth is a bit more complicated. As Booman Tribune put it back in August, although the Netroots may claim that "Sestak is twice the progressive that Ned Lamont ever was," Pennsylvania Democrats may "wind up preferring Bob Casey on every issue that isn't related to reproductive rights and stem-cell research." I'll add "don't ask/don't tell" and "health care reform" to that list, but not much more.
When it comes to matters or war and peace, Sestak is not a progressive. Although he campaigned in 2006 on ending the war in Iraq, and supported several supplementals that included a timetable for withdrawal, in the end Sestak voted in favor of HR 2206, a blank check to George Bush which continued to fund the Iraq war with no deadlines for drawing down troops. Two of the largest defense companies in the country are in his top five campaign donors. As recently as February 2008, Sestak participated in a "leadership conference" affiliated with the NDIA, a lobbying group that works to "ensure the continued existence of a viable, internationally competitive national technology and industrial base and strengthening the government-industry partnership through dialogue and interaction with the Congress and the Executive Branch". And while individual donations from single-issue voters make up a large percentage of his donors, defense industry PACs are only second in support to labor.
In 2007, Sestak sided with Dick Cheney, voting against defunding the vice-president's office when Dick tried to claim he was exempt from laws governing classified materials. I don't know if I like that kind of support for the imperial presidency.
That same year, Sestak participated in a meaningless vote to condemn an ad by MoveOn, the very group that raises funds and provides volunteers for Democrats. Was the "General Betray Us" ad the brightest idea MoveOn ever had? Probably not. On the other hand, what is the point of kicking your allies in the teeth? An offensive ad wasn't impetus for Congressional condemnation, but Sestak jumped into the fray anyway. This year, based on a bullshit stunt by conservative activists, Sestak voted to defund ACORN. Again, biting the hand that feeds.
Worst of all, Sestak voted to throw our Fourth Amendment rights in the garbage can, voting not only in favor of warrantless wiretapping, but in favor of extending special rights to corporations like Verizon and AT&T. These special rights prohibit prosecuting these companies for willfully breaking the law on Bush's say-so. On a recent conference call, in which the aformentioned Ned Lamont boosted Sestak's progressive cred, I asked Sestak about this vote. He told me that while the legislation he voted for did indeed extend these protections to the telecom industry, it left the government officials who ordered the wiretapping open to prosecution. What he did NOT mention was the radical Bush-Obama policy of state secrets, which effectively blocks those prosecutions too.
Now, it is certainly true that Arlen Specter voted for much of this as well. But when it comes to Fourth Amendment issues, one gets the distinct sense that Specter feels very badly about this. In fact, he has tried repeatedly to undo the damage he helped cause. Sestak defends his vote to this day.
And then there are questions of Sestak's temperament, which is legendary: as reported in 2007, Sestak is known as a taskmaster with one of the worst staff turnover rates in DC. Last October, DelCo Republican Craig Williams made hay of Sestak's rep, "highlighting Congressman Joe Sestak’s 128 percent staff turnover rate during his first 18 months in office, nearly quadruple the state average of just 33 percent."
I got to see a hint of Sestak's temper very briefly at the health care forum he hosted a few months back. One of his staffers was dealing with a particularly unruly speaker in private, and interrupted Sestak's train of thought to ask a question. Sestak wheeled to face the man, his face twisted into a snarl, before he quickly regained his composure and returned to the audience. It was bizarre. Specter's got a reputation too -- they don't call him "Snarlin' Arlen for nothing. But you don't hear the same kind of stories about staff turnover at Specter's office.
Given that so much of Senate wheeling and dealing is based on personal relationships (as Joe Biden and the late Ted Kennedy understood), what does this kind of turmoil suggest about a Senator Sestak? Don't we already have an egotist in Snarlin' Arlen, and one with a lot more clout? Because, as Booman correctly points out, "if [Specter] succeeds in winning reelection as a Democrat, his seniority will be restored. That would make him a cardinal on the Appropriations Committee, where he would steer untold amount of benefits to the people of Pennsylvania... he'd have enough seniority to take over the Veteran's Affairs, Aging, or Environment & Public Works committee. Sestak, by contrast, would take a seat behind Al Franken."
I've obviously spent a lot of time attacking Arlen Specter. I'm not a fan, as you've probably noticed. And on the surface, I think Joe Sestak looks like the better choice, which may be so.
But Pennsylvania progressives have been burned before, most notably by Chris Carney. Carney outright lied to progressives for their support in 2007, and now we're stuck with him. So I'm leery of Sestak's moves to the left. This is a typical pattern during primaries, after which the winner typically tacks right during the general, which I totally expect of Sestak as well as Specter. The difference is that Specter knows he has no chance with the right, and seems to be taking his leftward drift all the way. Furthermore, if re-elected, in all likelihood it'll be his last term. Even before Sestak entered the race Specter was no less reliable than quite a few Democrats as Nate Silver has noted, remarking "Specter appears to be just as capable of reacting to pressure from his right as to his left... there was also something of a breaking point while he was still a Republican". And as for whether he'll pull the same crap Lieberman pulled on Connecticut voters when he was re-elected, think about this: Lieberman owes his seat to the GOP, and bears a grudge against the Democratic party that didn't support him, which is why he's such a pain in the ass. With Specter, it's the opposite: he owes the Democrats, BIG TIME, and he has no love left for the Pennsylvania GOP.
Do I think Arlen Specter is a better Democrat than Joe Sestak? No. (Although he's a damn sight better than majority leader Harry Reid.) All I'm saying is before we elect someone to what amounts to a lifetime position, shouldn't we be asking the same hard questions of Sestak that we're asking of Specter?
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