POLITICS
09/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Joe Sestak, Senate Candidate, Starts Taking On Democratic Leadership

Hoping to gain further ground in the nation's most hotly-contested Democratic primary, Rep. Joe Sestak, (D-Penn.) has begun criticizing his own party's leadership in Congress.

The one-time Navy admiral has, over the past week, increasingly expressed disapproval with Democrats in the Senate for their failure to ensure that a public option for insurance coverage end up in the final health care bill.

"I want to see every Democratic senator, I want to see [Majority Leader] Senator [Harry] Reid fighting for the public health care plan option, not just [Sen.] Arlen Specter, (D-Penn)," Sestak told the Huffington Post during an interview at the Netroots Nation convention earlier this month.

A few days later, in an interview with MSNBC, Sestak offered a similar refrain. "[Democratic] senators should be down there, being led by the Majority Leader, Senator Reid, fighting for public health care plan option," he said, "because it's good for the pocketbook, it's good for the economy, and overall access for all is good for Americans."

Advisers say the airing of dissatisfaction with his own party's leadership is driven by a principled belief that more could be done to get a health care bill passed through Congress without being watered down beyond recognition. But there is also a political calculation at work. The move frames the congressman as more than simply another Democrat pining for a Senate seat. While his opponent, the incumbent Specter, remains fundamentally a moderate, Sestak establishes himself as the progressive alternative to the status quo.

Moreover, in calling out the Democratic higher-ups, Sestak has surprisingly little to lose and much to gain. The Democratic Party's campaign apparatuses -- from the White House to the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania -- have already announced that they are in Specter's corner, an alliance that Sestak says is indicative of what's wrong with politics.

"I didn't like the sense of the Democratic Party anointing someone. It was like, wait a moment," he said. "It's not [personal] at all. To me it is strange that someone who voted consistently with President Bush and someone who never used his seniority and leadership to fight for the policies Democrats believe in, was now being told to be our leader. I couldn't understand why we reached over to the GOP side to someone who's been there 40 years, who in four days decided that because he was losing a race and couldn't win a poll he should become a Democrat, that he would be our leader."

Faced with the hurdles that come with running against a party's favored candidate -- and a decades-long incumbent at that -- Sestak has felt increasingly liberated to push back against his party colleagues. In talking with the Huffington Post, the congressman drew contrasts between himself and fellow Democrats on more than just health care. He urged the President to appoint a commission of retired judges to launch an independent investigation into the authorization and use of torture during the Bush administration. He demanded stronger restrictions on executive pay. He insisted that he would not be "beholden" to any agreement made between the White House and the pharmaceutical industry regarding the negotiation of prescription drug prices and support for health care reform. And he leveled harsh words at Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for being overly meek in the face of the economic crisis.

"I feel we haven't been bold and aggressive enough," Sestak said. "I think he's a good man. I think he understands the issues, but when he came out at that first press conference about three weeks into [his tenure] and said 'look we're going to get a lot of input and we're going to listen and we're going to come back and tell you how we're going to do the intervention and buy mortgage backed securities.'.. A captain in the middle of a storm doesn't come out to his crew and say 'look I'm going to get your input, listen to you, and a couple weeks from now we'll decide how we're going to address the issue.' My gosh, if there was a moment that leadership was needed to say this is what we're going to do and we're going to fine tune as we go forward, that was it."

In the end, however, Sestak's harshest words were saved for his actual opponent. As he sees it, Specter has done nothing to earn the trust of Democratic voters, and his ability to work across the party aisle is tempered by the resentment that many Republicans have to him for making his party-affiliation switch.

"I'm not sure that the Republican side is exactly enamored with listening to Arlen Specter right now," said Sestak. "I don't think that when somebody leaves somebody in the midst of a battle the other side is sitting down on the other side willing to listen. I kind of find that a disingenuous argument."

Recent public opinion polls show that Sestak is gaining ground. Once trailing Specter by 45 percentage points among likely primary voters, the congressman now stands just 15 percentage points behind, according to an August 14 survey by Rasmussen. Perhaps more importantly, he's found a niche that resonates with the Democratic base -- the role of political outsider even with his own party in power.

"I also honestly don't believe that you should ever sacrifice good policy at the altar of bipartisanship," he said of the health care reform debate. "I believe that you should try to have the congregation pray together at the beginning but ultimately we need to be bold and aggressive for the good of Americans."

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