Tavis: Tonight, though, we begin with a man who has been in the news a whole lot of late – Congressman Joe Sestak. Following a decorated career in the U.S. Navy, the congressman is now the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate after defeating five-term Pennsylvania incumbent Arlen Specter. He joins us tonight from Philadelphia. Congressman, good to have you back on the program, and congratulations, sir.
Congressman Joe Sestak: Thank you very much, and it’s great to be back with you, thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: I am not going to ask you about all the White House stuff, offering the job, you turned it down. We know that story full well now. For that matter, the Joe Sestak story seems to be so old on the one hand we’re now talking about the other guy that the White House offered a job to in addition to Joe Sestak to get him out of his race.
I want to ask you about that. I do want to ask you, though, what you make of the Republican efforts on the Hill now to turn this into something more.
Sestak: (Laughs) I’m not surprised. I’ve been only in Washington, D.C. a couple years, but I’ve watched. When somebody doesn’t have something to run on, they turn their attention away from it. So you watch the Republicans that actually slammed this economy of ours, ripped it open, favored Wall Street. They don’t have a record to run on.
So like Washington too often does, they just want to talk about politics, gamesmanship. It’s not going to prevail. Come on up here, Tavis, to Pennsylvania. I remember seeing a farmer when I decided to get in this race. I asked him how the recession was, and I’ll never forget his reply. “Not too bad, I was hurting so much already.”
They’re not going to put up with it this time. Washington’s not working. We’re going to change it.
Tavis: Why were you able, you think, in retrospect now to defeat Arlen Specter?
Sestak: I had a lot of support of people who felt like I did, and I actually believe that somehow, even in my party’s establishment, the focus got off people. The focus got off where people in Washington, D.C. no longer were politicians; they were public servants, just like the sailors I had in the Navy. They could sense when a captain was in it for them.
I think people in Pennsylvania and I’ll bet throughout this great nation of ours really came to recognize somehow Washington, D.C. was no longer more concerned about their job than they were about their own. If I learned anything in the United States Navy, it’s that one was to be accountable for one’s actions. Where’s the accountability for what’s happening right down there in the Gulf or on Wall Street, where so many voted to dismantle the regulations there and now people have to work beyond 65 because they lost their savings.
I ran not for my own job in Congress, as I could have done simultaneously. I wanted to show people that I’d like to serve but be accountable in terms of it’s about your job, not mine, and I think that’s what you’re seeing across this nation, certainly here in Pennsylvania.
Tavis: I’m going to come to some of those issues you just raised in just a moment. A couple of other questions first, though. Arlen Specter, as you know, Congressman, is not the only example of one who switched parties in this election season and got the bricks beat off of them anyway.
What’s the lesson to those who think that switching parties to prolong one’s career is strategically the right thing to do? What’s the message to them?
Sestak: I think if one switches a party out of conviction, not political calculation, well before an election, that’s different. But I think, Tavis, the larger lesson is to the party establishment – those who actually welcomed a political calculation for a 60th vote rather than shaping the best policy, and it’s what John F. Kennedy said so well, “Sometimes, the party asks too much.”
Look, my party actually went to Washington and I think it thought it was given a mandate to do something. It wasn’t. We were given an opportunity to lead, and leadership means being back out, listening and then stating where you are. Don’t do things because of political calculation, do them because of principle, and do do – I honestly do believe in a principled compromise, but not a compromise of principle.
So my lesson is if you’re in it for conviction, people know that and that’s what happened.
Tavis: Was it a principled compromise given that he had voted for them on the stimulus package, or a compromise of principle that allowed the White House – Obama, Biden and everybody else – to get behind Arlen Specter so aggressively when he switched parties when they clearly knew that he was doing it – you ran the ad, we all saw it – he was clearly doing it just to win.
So on the part of the White House, was it a principled compromise or a compromise of principle for them to get behind him so aggressively when they knew it was just about him winning?
Sestak: I think it was about an establishment that literally had politics and vote counting above principled compromise, I do. I have great respect for people in Washington, D.C., but I frankly disagree. I would argue that if you had someone like Senator Kennedy, if he had been in that senate, who could do a principled compromise with a Senator McCain on immigration, to a George Bush on education, that we would have been so much more rewarded for having had more worries about shaping that policy and fighting for it.
How could we have begun with that 60th vote all the way down until we were letting health insurance companies not have ripped away from them their exemption for antitrust? That means we’re paying higher premiums. That’s what my party should stand for.
Tavis: I hear your argument – I hear your case, rather, that you’re making the example you’ve offered about President Kennedy, but I’m not asking not about Kennedy, but respectfully, about Obama and what you make – you’ve said very clearly that you don’t think that there was anything criminal about them trying to get you out of the race.
I’m asking now, though, what you think, respectfully, about the way they so aggressively got behind and endorsed Arlen Specter when they knew that he was only switching parties because he wanted to win and he said so publicly.
Sestak: I think it was wrong.
Sestak: There’s no more kings, there’s no more kingmakers in America, and if the Democratic Party should stand for anything when they were trying to get me out of the race, they should be for enticing people into the race.
This president said it so well, and I believe he believes it – “Believe in principle and politics will follow.” No, the party establishment was wrong in what it did.
Tavis: I accept that. You mentioned earlier the Gulf War. We’re involved, of course, in Iraq and Afghanistan. This war now has hit the 104th month officially today. This is now the longest war in all of U.S. history. How should the American people read that, Congressman?
Sestak: They have – I read it right now as wait a moment, do we have an exit strategy? I believe the public wants to know, and the president has not yet provided it.
I wrote a letter asking for the exit strategy that we were promised, and I received a letter back and quite frankly it was not adequate. I supported this president for one reason – to seal the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan because there’s a safe haven of al Qaeda in Pakistan where we can’t go, and sealing that border to convince Pakistan to go and exterminate that safe haven to where they can’t, with the Taliban that is in Pakistan, flee across the border away from them, and Pakistan won’t do it then.
Sealing that border was important, but I know that we have to have benchmarked measuring success and failure. We don’t have that yet, although we were promised it, and this cannot be an open-ended commitment. Without that, my support for this can’t be open-ended either.
We import too much treasure into this conflict not to know measurements if we are being successful, and we don’t have that yet.
Tavis: Should President Obama and the White House give the American people a date certain?
Sestak: I don’t believe in this conflict we should yet do that. Benchmarks that show whether we are exterminating that al Qaeda safe haven, whether Pakistan truly is moving from south to north Waziristan in order to help exterminate it. Those benchmarks of success are what we need.
I am not yet at a date certain for only one reason – we have the leadership of al Qaeda there that can plan against us, and when I went on the ground for a short period of time at the beginning of that war, and I mean a short mission, very short, I’ll never forget what I heard from the head of the National Security Agency, General Hayden, before I went in.
He said, “Joe, General Franks keeps telling me ‘Give me some actionable intelligence.’ I keep telling him, ‘Give me some action and I’ll give you some intelligence.’” If we don’t have some boots on that ground in order to make al Qaeda move so we can pick them up with our covert listening devices in order to get them exterminated, then we – and we can’t just give a date certain right now. We need to see if we are being successful in that, and that’s the sole reason to be there.
But ultimately, without that, benchmarks, and seeing if we’re successful, then you move to a date certain.
Tavis: I mentioned both Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course when we talk about the 104 months now, making it the longest war in U.S. history – we’re talking specifically about Afghanistan; Iraq, of course, came later, just to set that straight.
I’ve got about a minute and a half to go. Let me ask you about this BP oil spill and what you would be saying, what you’d be calling for if you were, in fact, now a member of the U.S. Senate and since you mentioned financial regulation – financial reform, rather.
There are some who believe that it’s not going to happen now because the oil spill has basically kind of pushed everything off to the side. Your thoughts?
Sestak: Financial reform must happen. We took the referee off the football field on Wall Street. We must have regulation up there. If I learned anything in the military I learned to expect what you inspect, and that must go through. To let any special interest stop us is wrong.
Also, I believe very strongly that Democrats have to understand that that MMS, that office, Mineral Management Service, truly needs to be divided and I know they’re about to do it, but how could they ever have permitted over the years past to let oil companies fill out the inspection forms? How could they permit them to have $80 billion in tax loopholes?
There’s so much to be done to correct accountability down in Washington, and back to your first question, Tavis – that’s what this election was about and I believe across America that’s what people are saying. Enough. Accountability, not just responsibility – accountability for what you’re responsible for, from Wall Street down to BP down to senators.
Tavis: You’ve always been kind to come on this program even before you were the guy that upset Arlen Specter, so I’m glad to have you back and I look forward to talking to you many more times in the future. Congressman, good to have you on and all the best in your race.
Sestak: It’s a pleasure and an honor, thank you.
Tavis: Thank you.
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