Specter and Sestak Debate; Interview w/Sen. Bennett on "State of the Union"

Specter and Sestak Debate; Interview w/Sen. Bennett on "State of the Union"

By State of the Union - May 16, 2010

Joining me now Democratic Congressman and candidate for U.S. Senate, Joe Sestak. Thank you, congressman, for being here. I have to tell you --

SESTAK: Good to be with you, Candy.

CROWLEY: Thank you. I saw a poll recently that really intrigued me. It was about approval and disapproval and 52 percent in this Quinnipiac poll said they didn't know enough about you to approve or disapprove. That says to me that this is a race about the incumbency of Arlen Specter rather than about you.

SESTAK: Well I think it is a race where actually everybody knows Washington is broken and everybody knows that if you're going to still send back to Washington, D.C. a career politician that actually would switch his party as he said to keep his job, then we are not going to fix the mess that we got into by sending him back.

So yes, he is a poster child for what's gone wrong in Washington, D.C. A generation of politicians who think that they can take a position not based upon conviction of core beliefs but about their electoral prospects. So it is time people say for a different generation, a new generation, new ideas, new energy. Some are going to be willing to lose their job over doing what's right for the people of Pennsylvania.

CROWLEY: You are not at this moment really a Washington outsider. You are a two-term congressman. But obviously, Senator Specter has been around for five terms and that's a good deal longer in the Senate as well. Are you saying that you believe this is an anti-incumbent year regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican?

SESTAK: Again, I really do think that Massachusetts said it very clearly for everyone, pox on both your houses down there. We voted for change, not just in policy but politics. They are tired. People are tired of this old retread, tired politics of old where we watched on that health care bill. My establishment, Democratic establishment says to political calculation, we might have a 60th vote with Arlen Specter. It continued all the way down to Ben Nelson willing to give his vote up only for special interests. Look, I want to go to Washington and I want to be a public servant who does principled compromise but not a compromise of principle.

CROWLEY: Your ascendancy in the polls, because in most of them we are now seeing you about even, sometimes a little bit about ahead of Senator Specter. We should say about 12 percent undecided. So that's a very important 12 percent. But nonetheless, you are too the left of Senator Specter. Do you see this as the left being upset with the direction of Washington, in particular, the Obama administration?

SESTAK: This is absolutely not about President Obama. And I don't characterize myself as left or right. I look at myself as very pragmatic. I think that Democrats can surely have somebody who believes with core beliefs in Democratic principles. And yes, I am standing up against a Democratic establishment in Washington, D.C. I have been down there two or three years trying to effect the change that's needed. And I am not running my professional job simultaneously, even though I could, to demonstrate this isn't about Joe Sestak. It isn't about Arlen Specter. It is about the right policies for working families, small businesses, tax cuts, educational opportunity and health security for all.

CROWLEY: I know you don't like to characterize yourself on the political spectrum. But the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette" in endorsing Senator Specter called you a true blue liberal who had little change of winning. You've just gotten the endorsement of, which is a liberal organization. When you look at your record, you are almost 100 percent voting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. You have voted for every major spending bill so far in the Obama administration. Is it possible that you may be in sink with your party but not in sync with an electorate that is moving to the right and is for one thing really upset with spending?

SESTAK: Absolutely not.

CROWLEY: Except for you voted for all those bills.

SESTAK: I went to Washington, D.C. Yes, but notice, I voted for pay as you go, which Arlen Specter, Pat Toomey, Rick Santorum and George Bush, threw out and tripled the debt. Every one of those bills was paid for without adding to the debt.

And oh by the way, notice that against Pat Toomey, Arlen Specter loses by 12 points, 50-38 and I'm tied with Pat Toomey because people honestly know from the military and my three years in Congress, I do believe in the right investment, but in accountable ways. Republicans, I believe before George Bush used to have a sense of accountability. But Arlen Specter with George Bush threw out that fiscal conservatism that I believe in.

CROWLEY: Congressman, there is an editorial in the "Wall Street Journal" entitled "The Democrats' Civil War." If you lose this primary, will you support Senator Specter and urge your supporters to do so?

SESTAK: What I know is this, that in a war, you always know you are going to succeed. So I'm going to win and I am looking forward to Senator Specter's support after 18 May.

CROWLEY: And if you look forward to his support, can he look forward to yours?

SESTAK: Never deal with something that's not going to happen. We are going to win, because the working families are the ones that win when we do win.

CROWLEY: Congressman, one last question and I don't want to do a go-around with you about what happened when you left the military and what the circumstances were. And yet, this has been an issue in your campaign. And I have watched politics enough to understand that if you have got a problem, the thing to do is to get things out there. And so the question is, why wouldn't you put your military record out there to get the questions to stop, because doesn't it look like you are hiding something?

SESTAK: A 30-year incumbent Republican senator who has left his troops on the field, the Republican Party kicked him aside to keep his jobs. As a 30-year veteran, I don't owe Arlen Specter anything. My record is public. I joined in the Vietnam era and I retired in Afghanistan. And my chief of naval operations, the head admiral, went on the record to say, Joe Sestak, he was courageous in changing the Navy. He challenged people in the Rumsfeld administration who didn't want to be challenged. Look I retired because I asked to put in my papers. My daughter had a brain tumor. And I needed three years to retire as a three-star admiral. I only had one in. I did what any father would do, I addressed the issue. And for Arlen Specter to say anything else is absolutely false.

In fact, sometimes, Candy, you may know politics, but, you know what, I believe principle matters. And for Arlen Specter to use false assertions says more about him and what he will do besides to switch a party. He will say whatever he wants in order to keep his job. We are not going to have it here in Pennsylvania. And I'm not ever going to be able to be strong enough to say, no, Arlen, you and those right wing Republicans, you did it to John Kerry, you did it to Max Cleland, not again.

CROWLEY: John Kerry did put out his records, just to sort of again put it out there. Is it about Arlen Specter or the people of Pennsylvania?

SESTAK: John Kerry did, but I stood up. People who are standing around me today care about one thing, Candy, which Arlen Specter has never spoken about, even when he switched parties and said it was to keep his job. It is about their jobs that Washington, D.C., because of politics, actually, let them lose. No, I have put out there time and again the Pennsylvania working families plan.

SESTAK: But there in our debate, not once did Arlen say what was wrong with it or what he would do, after having driven this economy aground with George Bush.

No, we are going to fight, as we always have, on the issues that will help, with principled compromise, always letting principle triumph over politics. The policies that the people standing around here in Philadelphia who lost 100,000 jobs over the last 30 years need.

CROWLEY: Congressman Joe Sestak, not much time to go. Actually, we will see you up in Philadelphia next Tuesday. Thanks so much for joining us.

SESTAK: Looking forward to it, Candy. And thanks for having me.

CROWLEY: Sure, thank you.

Up next, we will hear from Congressman Sestak's political opponent in this Tuesday's primary. Senator Arlen Specter is stand by.


CROWLEY: Coming up shortly, a conversation with Senator Arlen Specter. First elected in 1980, he has a reputation as a smart, exacting lawmaker with an independent streak and a flair for the cranky. Specter faced some tough elections over the past three decades, but always pulled it out with the help of supporters in high places.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am here to say as plainly as I can, Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate. I can count on this man. See, that's important. He is a firm ally when it matters most.


CROWLEY: President George Bush was the marquee name in many of Specter's 2004 campaign ads. Now, let's fast forward to 2010. Same show, a different name on the marquee.


OBAMA: He is going to fight for you regardless of what the politics are. I love you and I love Arlen Specter.


CROWLEY: This is not about a country that changed presidents. It is about Arlen Specter changing parties. He made the switch as his prospects to be renominated by the Pennsylvania Republican Party dimmed and shortly after, he voted in favor of President Obama's economic stimulus plan.

President Obama was arms wide open, giving Specter his full support, adding that the Democratic Party was, quote, "thrilled" to have Specter.

Pennsylvania voters seem less thrilled. We will ask Senator Specter about his relationship with Pennsylvania primary voters next.


CROWLEY: Joining me now from his home state of Pennsylvania, Democratic Senator Arlen Specter. Senator, thank you for joining me this morning. I know you are a busy guy, so I appreciate it.

SPECTER: Glad to be here. Thank you.

CROWLEY: I have to ask you. I have seen your opponent use the endorsements from both President Bush and President Obama to great effect. In his interview, which I'm sure you just heard, he didn't talk so much about Senator Specter as about Bush Specter, Bush Specter. Looking back on your decision to leave the Republican Party, do you wish you had worded it differently?

SPECTER: Well, listen, Candy. For years, I've tried to moderate the Republican Party. And when the stimulus came up and President Obama asked me for his support -- for my support, and it looked like we were sliding into a 1929 depression, I sided with President Obama.

It wasn't my job to be saved. It was the jobs of thousands of Pennsylvanians and Americans.

Look here, I had a clear shot at reelection. If I had stayed with the obstructionist Republican caucus, I would have been reelected easily, especially in an out-year when the party out of power is favored. But I--

CROWLEY: But you were facing a stiff challenge within your party from the right.

SPECTER: Well, I wasn't facing the challenge until I voted for the stimulus, Candy. Toomey, the other guy, had announced he was going to run for governor. I really had a clear shot all the way.

Look here, you mentioned the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial. But also, the Philadelphia Inquirer Daily News. The newspapers, as you know, look carefully at the voting records. They go behind the scenes. They interview the candidates. And the Harrisburg paper in endorsing me was very emphatic, that my vote was a vote of principle, and that I was really at odd with the Republican Party. There were irreconcilable differences, but they were caused by my stimulus vote. And my stimulus vote was not only about my job. In fact, it wasn't about my job. I had a clear shot at reelection. It was to save -- to stave off depression in this country.

CROWLEY: Well, your race does seem complicated by the shift in parties, because you have, on the one hand, there was a headline today in the Philly paper that says, quote, "Specter haunted by Republican past." So you had on the one hand Republicans who were angry with you. Obviously, they are not voting in the primary, but who are angry with you for switching, and then you have Democrats who don't quite trust you.

But layered over that, is there an element of incumbency here that works against you, having been in the Senate for so long? Do you think that that is also in play as it is across much of the country?

SPECTER: Well, Candy, that's the national attitude. But I have fought the bickering and the partisanship in Washington. I have been one guy who has been willing to cross party lines.

Look here, in my tenure in the Senate, I have voted in an independent way. I have sided with the Democrats more often on the big issues than Republicans. I support a woman's right to choose, Roe versus Wade. I am opposed to warrantless wiretapping. I have voted to raise the minimum wage.

And take the Bork confirmation proceeding. It would have been a different Supreme Court had Bork been confirmed, and I led that fight to defeat him. He didn't even believe that equal protection applied to women.

So that in the context of being an independent, it is true. I am not ideologically bound.

SPECTER: When President Obama made the commercial, he emphasized that. He said that I saved the country from going off the brink. That was the depression.

CROWLEY: Let me just show you because it's on this subject matter and the Quinnipiac poll. This was on your job approval, it was taken in early May. Your job approval in Pennsylvania, 38 percent. Now, 2008, in November, your job approval was 62 percent. The only thing that changed between November, 2008 and now, to bring that approval down more than 20 points, has been your switch in party and your vote for the economic stimulus plan.

SPECTER: Well, Candy, people everywhere have had their polls go down, including the president. But that Quinnipiac poll gave me a lead, still a slight lead. And I think the lead that I have had is because people recognize that I am the only guy who can beat Toomey. Go back to that nationally televised town meeting in Lebanon County. The Tea Party group was asked, the guy charged me with his fist clinched, you are ruining the country. Security wanted to throw him out. I stopped that. I didn't want the headline to read "citizen evicted." I wanted it to read, "senator keeps his cool."

But I argued with him, I fought him verbally and faced him down. Where was Sestak? Back in his office where it was safe. So when you take a look at the real, what's really at stake, it's keeping this seat in Democratic hands to support the Obama agenda. Sestak can't do it. You just saw him. Wouldn't answer any of your questions, ducks and dodges and weaves. You've got to face up to the issue sand you've got to be strong and you've got to be tough. And I'm the guy to do it.

CROWLEY: I want to ask you something that I asked him. This has been a very, seems a very personal race. Your side has felt that he has tried to make you seem too for the job. His side feels that you have tried to smear his military record, et cetera, et cetera. In the end, senator, if Joe Sestak wins this race, will you support him?

SPECTER: Sure. I am going to support anybody against Pat Toomey. It is not going to happen, but I will answer your question, Candy. He wouldn't answer your question as to what he has to hide. He wouldn't answer your questions all over the lot, ducks and bobs and weaves.

One thing I have always been is candid, maybe a little too candid. Sure, I said my prospects were bleak, because I'm being honest with the voters. I'm being honest with my votes. But my prospects turned bleak because I laid my job on the line. Rendell put it the best yesterday when he talked about my endorsement for the black clergy. Got a lot of support in getting out to vote. Rendell said, Arlen Specter put his job at risk. I had a clear shot at being re-elected but I wasn't going to let this country slide into a 1929 depression. My job didn't mean that much if it was at risk. In joining the Obama team, I cast the critical 60th vote for health care. Listen, of all the legislation passed during my tenure in the Senate, 30 years, that's the most important legislation. Thousands of people die every year because of lack of medical care because they don't have insurance. Insurance companies.

CROWLEY: I want to interrupt you because I wanted to turn the corner here. We don't have much time left.

SPECTER: I'm glad to be interrupted.

CROWLEY: I wanted to talk to you about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. And this was another thing, you voted against her as solicitor general. Certainly, I think there is no other way to interpret your remarks after you met her as you being kind of pro the idea of putting her on the Supreme Court. Again, as you know, Joe Sestak has used this as a way of saying this is an expedient politician. He votes one, he's going to vote against her. Now, he is going to go vote for her. Why don't you tell the people of Pennsylvania how you are going to vote?

SPECTER: Well, I want to go to the hearings, I want to listen to her. I want to confer with my clients. Sestak wants me to announce my vote now. Well I don't rush to judgment. I make my decisions after very careful thought. But let me tell you why I voted against her for solicitor general.

CROWLEY: If you can make it quick just because I am running out of time. But I would like to hear.

SPECTER: Well, it is your question, Candy. Give me a chance to answer it. She wouldn't answer questions as to what she would recommend to the Supreme Court where the solicitor general has a big say in what cases they take.

I wanted to know if she would take the case involving the Holocaust victims who were suing insurance companies. She wouldn't answer. Supreme Court nominees shouldn't answer questions but when I met with her, she was very forthcoming.

She told me that she didn't agree with the decision allowing corporations to agree in political campaigns. She told me that she would have deference to congressional thought.

CROWLEY: So we can sort of leave that as you have learned a little more.

SPECTER: Well, wait a minute. Just 20 seconds more. I think that senators ought to insist on answers. Otherwise, the executives -- listen, we haven't had the decision on warrantless wiretapping from the Supreme Court. So I think my pressing her on solicitor general got more answers. She says that she believes the Supreme Court nominees don't answer enough questions. Well, those confirmation hearings are to find out, to tell the senators and the American people where they stand as a matter of philosophy and ideology. And I think I'm making some progress on that, Candy, by being a little tough about it. CROWLEY: Senator Specter, thank you so much for joining us. You have got a busy couple of days ahead. We will see you Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

SPECTER: Great pleasure. Thank you, Candy.

CROWLEY: Thank you.

And when we come back, an early casualty of the animosity towards Washington, Utah senator, Bob Bennett.


CROWLEY: The distaste some voters have for Washington was in full display when Utah's Republican Party rejected veteran Senator Bob Bennett's bid for re-election. Was it about his policies or his incumbency? Senator Bob Bennett, thank you so much for coming. It has been a rough week for you, I understand.

BENNETT: Actually, this last week has been very relaxing compared to the six weeks that preceded it.

CROWLEY: I imagine, I imagine. Is there a larger lesson in your loss? Just to give it the "Reader's Digest" look for our audience. Three-term senator, you've been there almost two decades. You are a bona fide conservative but as well a pragmatist, being seen as being able to work across the lanes. What do you think happened here? Is there something that has broader application?

BENNETT: Well, they're two separate questions. And I'll answer the -- the one about Utah first. Because we should be very careful not to take the Utah result and try to extrapolate it across the country as a whole, because the Utah system is unique. We have a convention and a primary. And in order to get to the primary, you have to get through the convention. There's no other state that's like that.

According to the polls, if I got to the primary and got before the voters, I would be just fine. The polls all showed...

CROWLEY: So let me interrupt you and just get...


CROWLEY: ... cut to the chase here. Will you run on your own?

BENNETT: I have made a -- I have made a very firm decision not to make any decisions for the time being. So...


CROWLEY: You had me there for a moment.

BENNETT: Yes, I -- you thought you were going to make news.

(LAUGHTER) I could have won the primary. I could have won the primary very handily. I very clearly did not even come close in the convention. And there have been studies being -- there are studies being made to how different the convention delegates are from the primary voters as a whole.

Right now, that's completely academic to me, because I am where I am.

So the fact that I lost in convention in Utah does not necessarily mean that what happened in Utah can be extrapolated across the country as a whole.

Having said that, obviously, there is something going on in the country as a whole that affected the people who were elected as delegates at the convention that I think can be looked at as some kind of a national trend.

CROWLEY: Which is -- so look at it for me. What is...

BENNETT: Anger against Washington. And the other part of it, that is very interesting, that I don't think we have seen before, in this anger, people do not differentiate between their representative in Congress and, quote, "the federal government."

It isn't just the Congress they're mad at. It's "the federal government." And "the federal government" is seen as this overpowering entity, accountable to no one, completely out of control, that somehow we have to fight against, and the best way we can fight against it is remove everybody who's connected with it, regardless, conservative, liberal, black, white, male, female -- it doesn't matter; get rid of them all.

And that was the driving force behind the delegates.

CROWLEY: And -- and if you take that and just apply your loss across the country, would we be wrong to take away from it that Republicans don't actually want their representatives to deal across the aisle?

Because what was cited most were two things in which you did work with Democrats.

BENNETT: Yes, I was -- I was attacked because I was willing to sit down with Democrats. And...

CROWLEY: So if you were still running, and if you were a Republican running in a tough primary some place or going to have a tough election coming up in November, would you just stop working with Democrats?

Is that the key to getting re-elected in the Republican Party? Because Democrats are in trouble, too.

BENNETT: Yes, Democrats are in more trouble than we are on this one. You know, I probably would continue doing what I did, because I thought it was the right thing to do. It's the way I am.

Quick factoid: four years ago, another candidate for statewide office did a poll to find out who was the most popular in Utah so that he could determine where to go for endorsements. And I came out first with a 93 percent approval rating among Republicans, and four years later, I have a 27 percent naked re-elect, and I haven't done anything different in the four-year period.


I think that demonstrates the kind of changing.

CROWLEY: The climate has changed. The climate has changed.

BENNETT: Right. CROWLEY: Just quickly, because we are running out of time, what's going to happen to your -- well, still colleague, but former party colleague, Senator Specter? What's going to happen in that race?

BENNETT: I won't try to call that. I'm very fond of Arlen as a friend, got to know him, worked with him on a number of things, like him as an individual.

He's gotten himself into real trouble, partly because of the atmosphere, partly because of the way he handled things. And it doesn't look to me like he has a slam-dunk in any way. I would not be surprised if he were defeated.

But, then, the question comes, is Sestak seen as part of "the federal government"? And would he be thrown out as well in November? I think there's a very good chance he might be if he wins the primary.

CROWLEY: Lots of layers to this. And just, lastly, when can we call you up and get an answer to the question of whether you're going to run as an independent?


BENNETT: Well, as I said to the press out in Utah, as soon as I make up my mind, you will be the second to know. So we'll...

CROWLEY: I hope your wife is the first.

BENNETT: That's who I had in mind, yes.


CROWLEY: All right, great. Thank you so much. I really appreciate.

BENNETT: My pleasure. Good to see you.


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