Gwen’s Take: When Washington Insiders Become Outsiders

BY Gwen Ifill  May 21, 2010 at 10:59 AM EDT

Every few years, national politics seems to get a jolt. Tuesday’s elections in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas proved once again how Washington insider status can be a two-edged sword. One man’s experience can be another’s complicity – especially in times of national voter discontent.

Like most reporters and political observers, I watched most closely the Keystone state’s Democratic primary battle between 30-year Senate veteran Arlen Specter and two-term Congressman Joe Sestak. On the surface, it had all the trappings of political opera, beginning with Specter’s dramatic April 2009 party switch.

By the time voters went to the polls in Pennsylvania, the script had already been written. This is how it went. Sestak, the young(ish) outsider, had defeated Specter, the grizzled veteran and ambitious party turncoat. The New York Times headline even branded the 58-year old Congressman an “upstart.”

That is indeed what happened, but it’s also useful to take a closer look at Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, who has built a political career by being an insider when it helps, and an outsider when it works.

There’s no question that it did not help Specter to actually say on camera that he switched parties so he could get re-elected. The Senator’s own words were used against him to devastating effect in a Sestak ad. But was I actually shocked at what Specter said, and how Sestak capitalized on it? Not a bit.

I covered Sestak’s 2006 Congressional race for the NewsHour when he defeated 10- term Republican Congressman Curt Weldon, who had been reelected just two years earlier by a daunting 19 point margin. Looking back over my notes with the glorious benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it becomes clear that Specter should have studied that race. Sestak figured out some time ago how to use Washington experience against you.

Sestak, the highest-ranking veteran in Congress, ran against the unpopular Iraq war, but also by painting Weldon – then a powerful member of the House Appropriations committee – as hopelessly out of touch with his suburban Philadelphia district.

He was also able to capitalize on a voter mood that we saw on display once again this year. In 2006, he channeled discontent over several issues – from the handling of Katrina, to the Mark Foley Congressional page scandal, to the handling of the war- into one powerful megaphone of voter frustration.

“What it does is more or less cement a feeling that, not only are they not accountable for the national treasure that they’re given — from the war in Iraq and the military to how FEMA was not ready to respond to post-Katrina issues — but they also find can’t even be responsible for individuals entrusted to their care,” Sestak told us in a November 2006 interview. “It just cements the feeling that enough’s enough. We’ve got to change Washington.”

Sound familiar?

But Sestak — who worked as a defense adviser in the Clinton-era National Security Council, and as a Bush-era Pentagon official under Donald Rumsfeld — could be an insider when it served his purpose too.

Many expressed mild surprise that President Obama, who welcomed Specter with open arms when he flopped into the Democratic party, did not come to Pennsylvania to campaign for the party convert in the primary’s closing days. It turns out the President and his political advisers were better at reading the handwriting on the wall than Sestak was in 2008, when Mr. Obama was waging a do-or-die Pennsylvania primary campaign.

Sestak, you see, was a steadfast Hillary Clinton supporter during a bitter primary contest that in the end turned on the strength of old loyalties, super delegate hair splitting and claims of who best represented the change voters seemed to be demanding.

“She understands the change, and has been in the process that can effect the change,” he said when we asked him then why he was standing with Clinton just before Pennsylvania’s hotly contested primary that year. “Number two, I’ve admired so much those individuals that get hit upon in life, get knocked down in life. They are taking punches and keep on going. That’s the person you want beside you in combat.”

Either President Obama does not remember that Sestak was a Clinton backer (unlikely), or it simply no longer matters. The President made sure to call the new Senate nominee right away on election night to offer his help.

Now the president and Sestak will be heading into combat in what is certain to be a tough general election campaign against another insider- turned-outsider, former Republican Congressman Pat Toomey.

Politics is, after all, political. President Obama may or may not end up physically campaigning for Sestak. If anything is clear in this midterm election year, it is that running against Washington can be extremely useful.

Joe Sestak, for one, has learned that lesson—-by doing.

This entry is cross-posted on Washington Week’s website. Tune in on Friday as Gwen Ifill and her panel discuss the anti-establishment mood sweeping the United States.