Sestak: We Don’t Need The GOP’s Benedict Arnolds

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Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) hasn’t been shy about criticizing Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) for switching parties last week, but his harshest words came last night in an interview with TPMDC: “He left the fight,” said the former admiral and highest ranking military man ever to serve in Congress. “In the military, we just don’t leave fights.”

Sestak’s shot at Specter comes amid grassroots grumbling that the deal Democratic leaders struck to get Specter to defect from the GOP cost the party a shot at putting a real liberal in the seat in 2010.

“I can’t figure out…why the deal was done,” Sestak told me, saying he’s concerned that the party was so quick to embrace Specter for reasons of “expediency,” and without regard to the needs of Pennsylvania voters. “It isn’t Washington’s prerogative to tell us what to do,” Sestak insisted.

I asked him whether he’d been on the receiving end of establishment pressure — from people like Vice President Joe Biden and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell — to stay out of the race, and he insisted, “I haven’t heard from anyone.”

While Democrats from the While House on down might be trying to keep the Democratic primary field clear for Specter, they might not necessarily mind the fact that, for the time being, Sestak is applying pressure on Specter to move left. By keeping the door open to challenging Specter in the Democratic primary, Sestak may serve to nudge Specter further than he might otherwise have gone. Yesterday, Sestak told Greg Sargent that if Specter “doesn’t demonstrate that he has shifted his position on a number of issues, I would not hesitate at all to get in” to a primary fight against him.I asked Sestak what those issues were beyond EFCA, and he proceeded to list just about every major item on the Democratic agenda: Economic security for Pennsylvanians–Specter voted for the Bush tax cuts; health reform–which Specter helped derail in the 1990s; education–reducing costs, and increasing quality so that Pennsylvania doesn’t compete with Florida for the honor of being the oldest state in the union; the environment; and national defense–Specter voted, of course, for the Iraq war.

But according to Sestak, even if Specter moves in the right direction, the more important question is whether or not he’ll actually stick to those new positions going forward. If Specter’s re-elected, he’ll be senator (potentially) until 2016, and Sestak worries he won’t be reliable over time.

Interestingly, though, there may not be much daylight between Specter and Sestak on at least one of these issues. Sestak says he’s still unsure whether he supports a public health insurance option as an element of comprehensive health reform. He plans to discuss the issue further with SEIU president Andy Stern and others and come to a decision in the coming weeks, but if he ultimately comes down against that policy, he’ll be in just about the same camp as his new rival, who came out against a public option over the weekend. Obviously that means less in the House (where Sestak serves) than it does in the Senate (where Specter potentially wields enormous influence), but no less a figure than Howard Dean has said that comprehensive health reform requires a public option.

Last night, Stern told ABC news that “[i]t is hard to imagine any union supporting a candidate in the Democratic Party for the US Senate who doesn’t have strong positions on both healthcare and Employee Free Choice,” and this morning he sent out the message “Sestak is serious about Senate race” on Twitter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM’s senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he’s led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com

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