Slow Down on Sestak

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.

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 17 | Posted Oct. 25, 2009

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Are Pennsylvania progressives asking the right questions of Joe Sestak?

Photo by Center for American Progress, via Flickr.

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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Comments 1 - 17 of 17
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1. PoliticiansTV said... on Oct 25, 2009 at 10:45PM

“Great article. Finally the information is put on the table. It seems all that has been said is that Specter is "old" and "doesn't get it." Is it possible that Specter is making up for some past mistakes and could be the trojan horse that the Dem's needed? I think so.”

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2. PADEM2010 said... on Oct 25, 2009 at 11:51PM

“Hmmmm... an empty suit and fake progressive to the Senate (Sestak) or Specter, who has clout and influence in DC? I think the answers a no brainer... Specter :)”

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3. Montco PA Dem said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 07:36AM

“So what's new? Anybody who has paid the least bit of attention to Joe Sestak knows he's not a progressive. The fact that the online progressive community wrapped him in their loving arms is more a sign of Joe being in the right place at the right time than of his politics. When he first ran for his seat, he became a hero because he defeated crazy longtime incumbent Curt Weldon. And now, he is poised to take on a Republican posing as a Democrat.

The fact that Joe Sestak isn't a progressive shouldn't cloud the fact that he is the one hope for defeating Arlen Specter in 2010. Or, progressives could sit on their hands and wait for a perfect candidate, which would assure Specter of another six years of feeble incompetence.

Six years from now, we can primary Sestak. But first we need to get him elected.”

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4. brendancalling said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 07:48AM

“Frankly, I think this says less about which candidate is better for PA than it does the fatal flaws in the two-party system.

I honestly can't make up my mind about either specter or sestak.”

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5. brendancalling said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 08:39AM

“comment 5 is spam.”

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6. Dylan F said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 09:18AM

“I guess the real difference from me in terms of policy comes down to economics.

Sestak has made no indication he supports anything but a progressive tax structure that favors a healthy middle class. If I'm missing something, please show me.

Specter's baby has always been the flat tax. He's been the sole sponsor of his regressive tax postcard in every congress for decades. He supports the Blue Dog balanced budget amendment. He blindly supported the Bush tax cuts over and over again.

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7. narberth said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 10:37AM

“Thanks for the thoughtful article. Sestak is not the progressive saint that we'd like him to be, and time will tell if he's really a better choice than Specter.”

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8. brendancalling said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 12:18PM

“dylanf, do you have a link for that? I'd like to read it too.”

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9. M.C. said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 12:58PM

The only reason Arlen Specter has supported any progressive positions since his switch is the primary challenge by Sestak. Specter was flat out opposed to the public option and Employees Choice until Sestak, who has been a consistently vocal supporter of both, took him on. Also, can anybody tell me where Specter is on climate change? Sestak took a stand even before it was passed while Specter is doing his normal waffling, so he can make the most politically expedient decision. On the issue of war and peace, I'd have to agree with Ned Lamont's comment on Hardball that we would have never gotten into that mess if people like Joe Sestak were fighting for us in Congress in 2003. Specter voted for the war of course. Sestak may not be in line with you on every issue, but he is doing a heck of a job holding Specter's feet to the fire and I don't want to see what Specter will do if Sestak is no longer a factor in his decisions. Sestak will have my vote.

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10. joe the nerd said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 02:47PM

“i am trying to figure out the point of the article.

sestak is not progressive enough because he deals with defense contractors. have you taken a look at the defense contractors in the 7th district?

he is not progressive enough because he wasn't willing to defund the office of vp? chain-e was a horrible character, but defunding an institution like the vp's office was an off-the-wall idea. if you ran down the field with the last year, who says somebody elese won't try the stunt at some other point on our guys.

sestak is a mean guy because he shows his teeth once in a while? maybe some democrats should start showing teeth more often.

sestak has turnover in his office. i guess an office open 7 days a week will have high turnover. guess what - he is in a republican district. he needs to run an office that is hyper efficient. this may be leftover style from the navy - you know a 24/7 gig - but as a constitutient, his name is on the door.”

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11. joe the nerd said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 02:57PM

as far as staff leaving, maybe the staff that gets gigs for other congresspeople will look at a former sestak staffer as one who gets stuff done. maybe sestak's culture will rub off on other congresspeople to get stuff done.

his closed case rate is something like 3 times the average congressperson's. 300% closed case rate vs. 128% turnover rate sounds like a good deal.

if you want to injure a good selection for a democratic senator - keep going you are doing a good job.

Specter is a real progressive - i am sure clarence thomas sends him a thank you every holiday for helping him get his gig.

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12. brendancalling said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 05:56PM

“jeez joe the nerd: you must have missed my past dozen columns tearing specter to shreds for being an opportunist, for being a fake democrat, for hurting PA by voting to cut down the stimulus. I'm no fan.

But I'm not going to pretend Joe Sestak is the second coming of FDR when he's not. he's a decent enough guy, better than specter on some issues, and just as bad on others. Like civil liberties.
I'm sorry if my valid criticisms rankle you. Eyes wide open and all that...”

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13. David Diano said... on Oct 26, 2009 at 09:19PM

“I wonder if "joe the nerd" is "joe the sestak staffer"?

The problem is that Sestak is a fraud as a progressive.
Sestak seems allergic to Congress asserting any real oversight role or accountability (to the military, big business or the executive branch).

Brendan, Sestak is like the Wizard of Oz, only the real Sestak behind the curtain isn't a nice guy.

The progressives and people at Netroots need to wake up to who Sestak really is.”

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14. joe the nerd said... on Oct 27, 2009 at 06:32AM

“i am not a staffer, but someone who believes that sestak will make a great senator, just like Bobby Casey. other sestak supporters gave me a heads-up on this particular article, so no, i have not seen your other stuff.

i am ticked that sestak won't be my congressman anymore. he and his staff have done an outstanding solving constituent cases, including one in my town. he has to, the dems and progressives are badly outnumbered in the 7th district. over the last 30 years i have had MMM, Fox, Hoeffel, Weldon. Not knocking any of those folks - Sestak is by far the best of the group.

You don't get to be an admiral by being a nice guy (but i haven't seen anything that indicates that he isn't). When did "nice guy" become a more desirable attribute than getting things done and being smarter than the other fish in the tank? sestak is smart enough to know Pa. is not a progressive state, as his district is as progressive as you would like. he needs to appeal across the board.”

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15. joe the nerd said... on Oct 27, 2009 at 06:35AM

“i am sure you have 2 or 3 issues that trump all the others, is he batting over .600 on those issues? then help the guy. if not, find someone who has a higher slugging percentage who can actuially win.”

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16. sue said... on Oct 27, 2009 at 10:00PM

“Joe is not perfect but he is honest -what you see is what you get.
Arlen is a self-serving,disloyal and conservative slut who will try to fool you into trusting him only to turn on you is it furthers his ambition.

NEVER forgive him for Thomas, Scalia, Roberts and Alito!!

Never forget his support for Bush and McCain-that is who he really is.”

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17. Abu Rahman asks said... on Oct 27, 2009 at 11:47PM

“"If you are comparing Sestak with Specter, who is more progressive and betting on Specter; you lost. Vouching for some one who is (almost) life long Republican, supported Bush Policy almost 90% times, destroyed our economy and our standing in the world (as a superpower) under his watch, became a Democrat because it serves his ego - you don't seems to be progressive enough to question Sestak's progressive mind. One do not need to write just to feed the Fox News? when nation is in crisis.

Joe Sestak works with liberals, moderates, conservatives and with Republicans to formulate his plan and get the job done. One can call him anything, but he is there to serve the Nation. His gave his life serving our nation and continue to do so; isn't who we need to help get elected. He has my support and I am betting on him. We need too.....”


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