In general, and in the context of editorial board members at major U.S. newspapers, I am pretty pleased with the job that Gail Collins does, and has done, at the New York Times. But her take on the Specter/Sestak race is instructive for two reasons. Collins rightly notes that Arlen Specter, a 30-year veteran of the Senate, is an insider’s insider in a year where the people are inclined to throw insiders out. But she does so without any hint of irony. She is also an insider’s insider.
More interesting, though, is her refusal to take a side in this contest. She has nothing nice to say about Arlen (“the ego that ate Philadelphia”) but she has nothing good to say about Joe either (“apparently not one of the more cuddly personalities you would ever want to deal with”). She also calls him “irritating.”
This ambivalence is actually a pretty good reflection of how progressives are approaching this race here in Pennsylvania. There’s very little love on the left for Arlen Specter. But nearly half the activists I know are at least considering voting for him (including some of his most vituperative critics). That might be incomprehensible to people who live outside the state, but it has a lot to do with unease people have with Sestak.
Rather than try to characterize a visceral feeling in others, I will describe my own. I first encountered Sestak at the inaugural Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas. The first thing that struck me was his soft voice and supremely calm demeanor. It was the exact opposite of what I expected from an admiral. It didn’t compute for me, and it made it hard for me trust him. It reminded me of the Serenity Now episode of Seinfeld. You know? Serenity now, insanity later. In other words, Sestak’s calm seemed like a forced effort to hide a volcanic temper. That was back when Sestak was merely a candidate for office. Once in office, he immediately began abusing his staff by making them work ridiculous hours at about the lowest pay-rate on Capitol Hill. It didn’t take me long to hear about it. He went through five press secretaries and a couple of chiefs of staff in his first year. I felt that my first impression of Sestak had been correct. He campaigns like he’s Mr. Rogers but behind the scenes he’s real son-of-a-bitch hard-ass. I don’t trust people like that, and a lot of people here feel the same way.
That Sestak broke his campaign promises on war-funding and FISA doesn’t really disturb me. After all, Specter famously said that telecoms violated the Constitution moments before voting to immunize them and kill off any investigation or prosecution for warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens during the Bush years. In fact, Arlen Specter’s performance as both chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Bush’s presidency was so dishonest and appalling that I am voting for Sestak as a result. But the truth is that I don’t give a shit who wins. I’m not sure, but I think my vote may be canceled out in my own household. Like I said, you’d probably be shocked to know how much (tepid, reluctant) support that Specter has here from progressives. And I’ve got very little to work with to argue with them. It comes down to, for me, that I ain’t voting for Specter. Call me a Yellow Dog.