Just when you thought the field couldn’t get any bigger, the Democratic presidential race was joined, again. On Sunday, former Pennsylvania Congressman, and three-star admiral, Joe Sestak, threw his cover into an ever-expanding ring. He is the twenty-fifth major candidate to do so. While Sestak’s relatively late entry into the race may not pose much of a threat to the presumptive frontrunner, Joe Biden, it may signify that certain Democrats think he’s already in trouble.
Sestak’s last two political campaigns for the U.S. Senate ended in defeat. Congressman Sestak defeated Republican-turned-Democrat, Sen. Arlen Specter, in 2010, turning a 21-point deficit into an 8-point triumph. Abandoned by the DSCC, Sestak lost to eventual Sen. Pat Toomey in the general, by two points. He tried for a rematch in 2016, but was thumped by former gubernatorial chief of staff, Katie McGinty, in the Democratic primary.
In his announcement, Sestak said two of his “primary objectives” were “putting a brake on climate change and putting an end to an illiberal world order’s injustices.” Like all prospective presidents, Sestak mentioned the man he’d ultimately like to face next year. “The president is not the problem. He is the symptom of the problem people see in a system that is not fair and accountable to the people.” In Congress,
and on the campaign trail, Sestak built a reputation as a relatively moderate Democrat. That lane, of moderate, centrist, purple-to-red state Democrats, seems to be filling, and seems to depend on waiting for Joe Biden to screw up.
To be honest, it wasn’t a great week for the former Vice President. True to his schtick as a bipartisan dealmaker, who would work with anybody in the Senate to get things done, Biden cited two examples which may have been, by his own admission, extreme. Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi “never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’” he told an audience at a New York fundraiser Tuesday. Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia was “one of the meanest guys” he ever knew, but “at least there was some civility.” Biden used his relationships with Dixiecrat segregationists to make a point. “We didn’t agree on much of anything, but today, you look at the other side, and you’re the enemy.” Biden continued, “we don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Biden’s Democratic rivals quickly pounced, preferring we not talk to certain people anymore, and stop talking to others. Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris all blasted Biden’s remarks and his working relationships with former members of the Democratic caucus. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio went further, stating “it’s past time for apologies or evolution from Joe Biden.” The mayor added, “he repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party.” On this, de Blasio may be more correct than his 1% in the polls leads on.
The modern Democratic Party, at least where the leading, non-Biden candidates are concerned, seem to be turning inward, shunning compromise and those with whom they disagree. It’s an open question how they intend to accomplish the ambitious goals they have set, on climate change, health care, and other issues, without at least some Republican help. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) compared pro-life people to racists and antisemites, effectively writing off nearly half the country. It’s a viewpoint more suitable to a small liberal arts college campus than a large catch-all party which must appeal to broad swaths of the electorate in order to win.
Sestak’s candidacy, like that of Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), might not amount to much, and may actually be geared toward another run for office or a cabinet post. Still, that more than one member of the Democrats’ ideological old guard believe an early exit by the party’s heavily-favored frontrunner is a viable electoral strategy is telling. Biden’s vulnerabilities and faults are well-known. They might be overblown, as the majority of primary voters don’t hang out on Twitter. Or, they might be too much to bear for a younger, woker cadre of party activists.