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On the Issues: Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak

“That’s where I think it’s a real difference, that you actually have somebody running that can actually win a Republican district nearly 2 to 1 without spending a dime on a campaign.”

Joe Sestak, who announced his presidential bid on June 23rd, enters the field with a range of experience, having served as a Vice Admiral in the United States Navy, a member of the House of Representatives, and an insurgent Senate candidate in 2010. Congressman Sestak represented what was then Pennsylvania’s seventh congressional district from 2007 to 2011. During his time in the House he was voted, “The Most Productive Member of Congress,” and the National Journal named him the ideological center of the House. He narrowly lost the 2010 Senate race in Pennsylvania, after defeating Arlen Specter in the primary. In that primary, Congressman Sestak faced opposition from a number of prominent Democrats, including then-President Barack Obama. He joins Merion West and John George to discuss how his time in the military has informed his view of foreign policy, grassroots campaigning, and his long-standing commitment to addressing cancer, given that his daughter has suffered from the disease.

Congressman, thank you for joining us. You’ve had extensive military experience, and you were a Vice Admiral in the United States Navy and were at the heart of the Navy’s anti-terrorism effort following September 11th. What would you say are some of the biggest lessons from your Naval career that are informing how you approach foreign policy and national security?

There are three principles that—during my time in service of our nation—I truly believe are extraordinarily important to keep in mind. Part of the reason I’m running is because so few have that kind of experience. The very first is: America’s greatest power is its power to convene: to bring together nations and peoples of the world for a common cause that serves us all. That’s how we won the “Third World War” of the last century: the Cold War, without a shot. Then, there are lessons from my military experience—like arriving in the Arabian Sea, to beginning the strikes against Afghanistan by my aircraft carrier. That was an international armada. The Minister of Defense said, “We are here because America has been attacked, and we will be here for them.” The United States convened the world in organizations from NATO to the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, to where we brought the world together to our collective good so that we can prevent wars. And that is the overarching, number one lesson. That’s our greatest power. And today we’re retreating from the world, and that’s why it’s so harmful to our American dream because it’s not protected. 

Number two: people need to understand that militaries can stop a problem, but they can never fix a problem. Because those Democrats and Republicans alike, for example, who voted for that tragic misadventure in Iraq, unleashing Sunni against Shia and Shia against Sunni, had little understanding. And that metastasized into ISIS. It took us into Syria and beyond. Trying to use the military to fix a problem was going to cause great, unaccountable consequences to us. And that gets to my third overarching principle. If a commander-in-chief is ever confronted with a decision to use our military, that person had better have the depth and breadth of global experience and knowledge of the world so that they can understand how it will end before it begins. So, for example, when I had my aircraft carrier post, those other nations were waiting for us there—from Canada to Australia and across the globe—to become part of our American battle group. Japan was there— when I was ordered after a few months to take my aircraft carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf to begin the precursor strikes against Iraq, only the British and Australians were with us. 

Because those other nations knew that we could not tell them how it would end. So those are the three principles: convening the world to further our American dream in the collective good of all is number one. Number two: remember, militaries can stop problems, but they can’t fix them. So we can fix Iraq and Iran by convening the world, even Russia and China, and to remove from Iran the nuclear weapons-making infrastructure. We fixed the problem through our diplomacy, but then we broke our word. Now, we’re at the cusp of using our military to try to stop it. They can rebuild their infrastructure within four years. And third—and that’s how we fixed Germany—we stopped Germany with our military, but we fixed it with the Marshall Plan and economic development. And finally, one must have experience so that you know how it will end if you use our military before deciding if it’s wise to begin. For example—not just Iraq, but even Libya. And I said, how will it end? Do you know how it will end before you get in? And today, the damage that has been done is—within Iraq—on account of consequences, causing a lack of faith. And the biggest issue that I’m running for is our leadership because they were not accountable to people by doing the right thing. 

At the Democratic debate, the candidates were asked what they believe is the greatest threat to American national security. How would you have answered if you were on the stage that night?

China. For four reasons. The first is because of climate change. If we shut down all Western oil companies today, that’s only ten percent of all natural gas and oil that’s being produced for fossil fuel in the entire world. So much of is by China and Russia, and China, in particular, has 1,600 coal burning facilities it is building globally in the next decade. Number one, it’s because of climate change—that is the biggest. And I tell people, by the way, just a side note—I have said climate change is a great and catastrophic threat, but we can only be 15% in reduction in greenhouse emissions, even if we zero us out. The 85% is over there, and China is the biggest polluter of them all. 

And the second greatest threat is China; the second reason is through its Belt and Road initiative. Or predatory loans—it is actually enslaving nations through these loans. Djibouti had to give China a port for its Navy. Right there, a first base in Africa [for China]. Greece had to give up its political voice and block the European Union’s unanimity needed to stop a condemnation of the terrible human rights record for the Muslim Uighur citizens of China. And so Xi is a new illiberal world order where might makes right, and the Prime Minister of Malaysia said it’s a new colonial power. And in this Belt and Road initiative, it is exporting its old coal mines and factories and building them there with Chinese labor. It is a very illiberal and unjust world order. That’s why, John, our retreat from the world today, from home, thinking somehow we can become great again behind walls so dangerous to the American dream—we are hurting what we could be in the world. 

The third reason is our national corporations have exported, outsourced not just jobs, but our national security to China. By having their technical supply chains, the high tech products being in China—75% of all mobile phones are constructed there, and 90% of all computers are there—you might’ve seen that the Mac Pro of Apple was just shut down a few weeks ago, and it’s being outsourced over there. What happens, as you may know, if you have an Android phone, everything you say, all the data on it is surreptitiously sent back to China. Because it’s with Chinese software. Motherboards that go into servers for Apple and Amazon, the Navy cruisers and CIA drones, were embedded with microchips being sent here. So we have our national corporations outsourcing to China. So that’s the third reason—we have a national security threat, through their ability to begin to identify, follow, and know everything for commercial and intelligence purposes.

But the greatest, the number four threat, within the cyberspace world is the 5G network. Because of the Belt and Road initiative, we must find out about the digital Silk Road. And each of these countries are now enslaved, so to speak, by the Belt and Road initiative to also have this 5G network that China is leading the world on. With Huawei and other companies. Whoever builds it, owns it—it will revolutionize economies and warfare. Because no longer do you need to hack—what China does now, with $300 billion per year—everything that will go through, a piece of equipment that they build, and we don’t build it—after we sold Lucent, only three companies in the world build it. They have eyes on everything. So if you put a virtual business meeting on there, with trade secrets, they’ll just listen in. They don’t have to hack, it just goes right through this piece of gear. Number two is they’re able to, without having to hack, through the same pipeline take down critical infrastructure during high speed tensions. So that is why, we must understand that China, it is now one world. We’re damaged by climate change, and it will come no matter what we do by ourselves here. Number two, changes to our way of life by China will happen no matter what we do alone. And third, damage to us by corporations outsourcing our national security to China will happen no matter what we do by ourselves. So we must convene the world once again. Go back to those institutions, like the World Trade Organization, the detective organizations that set the rules for technology. And convene the world to make sure that together, we ensure, like we did in the Cold War, like in making sure that extreme poverty—went from in 1945 with 80% of the world’s population to 8% today—we can confront and mitigate and eventually end the damage to us from what they’re doing. By forcing them, by everyone being united to follow the rules of the road. Of justice. 

So moving on, I think another big foreign policy issue—you commented recently about an embassy move to Jerusalem, potentially taking us away from realizing the goal of a two-state solution. What steps would you take instead to meet that objective?

Yes. I think again this goes again to America’s greatest strength. We have to convene the region and the world towards this. Not only letting Palestine, the Palestinians, and Israel work together under our aegis, but also with the support of those from the European Union and other places. Israel, may be safe today, but is not permanently secure until we get to a two-state solution. So that diplomatic resolution is what’s needed for a permanent secure. I know that this is extraordinarily difficult, and the absence of leadership right now in the Palestinian side is going to be an additional challenge. We need to recognize that this is principally about territory. Number two, we have to establish what those lines are that we will base the territorial discussion upon (1967 or pre-1967), where that is, and we must engage together in doing it, knowing that to do this, the second major thing it’s about is not really establishing the second state of Palestine within a territory that’s agreed to go. And they must understand that one—borders have to be worked out, because that’s territory. We must also understand that’s a challenge. That’s why, number two—the Jerusalem embassy—I said the other day, unlike other candidates, I said it’s not just a mistake, it needs to be moved back. After we discussed this with the Israelis thoughtfully, because eventually we do want it to be capital of Jerusalem, much as we do with the Palestinian side of it. 

Many of the religious sites are mixed on both sides, and we have to work towards that, otherwise that becomes a permanent impediment to getting to where Israel is secure permanently in a two-state solution. The third one is refugees. We have to understand that—how do we work through these 5 million refugees that are down there, with the recognition that Israel wants to be a Jewish and democratic state, with a Jewish majority, so how do you buttress that to where it’s also one where Palestinians understand, or deserve a right to return. How do we mitigate that? Easy? Absolutely not, but remember, we came very close to this. Twice. So we have to continue working. Finally, security. Again, that gets back to understanding that having a military that has to enforce safety is not what we can do. That means Hamas has to go; it means that Israel is going to have to withdraw from the Gaza. We are going to have to make sure that the military resolution is one where in the aftermath, we have to understand that there cannot be this standing confrontation between military forces. That means things like Hamas are going to have to go. So is this hard? Yes, it is, but so was the resolution of Bosnia, so was Northern Ireland. If we want our strong ally, Israel, to be secure, we’re going to have to go down this road no matter what. And that means also making sure that the Palestinian people have the right to what they deserve too. Those are the big pieces to address. 

Just to wrap up the foreign policy, would you say that national security, foreign policy, and your experience in the military are hallmarks that distinguishes you in this campaign from the other candidates?

Yes. But there is a second one. And I think this is what Americans most yearn for: accountability from a leader who will be accountable to them. Above party, above self. Above any special interest. Whether it was turning down or refusing to support the Comcast merger with NBC and then obviously not getting any kind of support in terms of contributions, whether it’s representing a nearly 2-1 Republican district and showing you can get re-elected without spending a dime on a campaign ad, a hundred percent voting record on NARAL pro-choice and human rights record, all the way over to an F on NRA but being able to talk and disagree well. Even with my own party, when it embraced a Republican senator who had humiliated Anita Hill in the 1992 hearings, I felt that that’s wrong. There’s no accountability for her if we do that. Accountability, when people can trust you and permit you as a leader with global experience to explain why we must restore leadership in the world. And number two, [we have to] actually move domestic policies through, like training for a lifetime for the labor force. We have less money spent for labor training than many developed nations: .001% of GDP. Many of these laborers were Trump supporters; many were Obama supporters. But who’s talking about them? And healthcare, and education, and small businesses where the majority of Americans live, yet it costs 40% more for them to take care of regulation. To do those, though, and to not have a President who just does executive orders, you need someone who’s trusted and who has demonstrated accountability to people. We need someone who might disagree well but also can explain. John F. Kennedy once said, it’s not just telling people what they want to hear; it’s telling them what they need to hear. We must protect our American dream, expansion, and security by convening the world to these challenges. 

So now shifting a little bit to your history with your 2010 Senate campaign, you walked 422 miles across Pennsylvania—that was a very unique strategy to connect with voters. Do you have any similar plans in store for this presidential bid, in terms of strategy or how you plan to connect with voters?

The last part, yes: about connecting with voters in the same ethos. But presently, I have no plans to physically walk across, mainly because of my daughter’s brain cancer, but that doesn’t rule it out. You said it very well at the end: “connect with voters.” I did that. Because my daughter had drawn a sign for me during her brain cancer, she was still four at the time, and it was on my old 2010 website. It’s a sign that had two shoes—they looked like red blobs, but beautiful shoes to me because she drew them. It said “Joe Sestak is walking in your shoes.” Now, you know where that’s from; it’s from To Kill A Mockingbird. 

Exactly. And that’s why I did it—to show, at that time—Tea Party, and everything had happened. In 2016, I was walking, when my party didn’t want me to walk and just do fundraisers, I said no: the DNA has changed the parties. People want to know if I know what they’ve gone through after the great recession. And I want to connect with them by saying, “I want to walk and hold a town hall in each place.” I wanted to demonstrably show I’m walking in their shoes. So each day I did a town hall, whether it was human trafficking, small business, labor, investment, whether it was college loans—all the way across [the state]. I had 36 town halls. What I am doing here is very similar. I’ve already shaken over 21,000 hands, and I know that. 

I have a point tomorrow night to drive four hours to a parade. They’re the best door to door you can do. I have my volunteers passing out ahead of me—about 20 yards ahead—a brochure. And as I run back and forth shaking every hand, I slowly move to the back of the parade. I’m on that brochure, please take it home and read about what I want to do as President. One out of four have already read it, and they say, “Thank you for your service.” I also do every night at least two events, though last night there was one. I try to do two events. There are Democratic events, but not just that. I’ve gone to an African American church my very first day here because they were my best supporters, and the pastor asked me to stand up and introduce myself, and I did. It turned out that he was a vet, and we chatted afterwards. Number two, I’m going to a Chamber of Commerce to talk to them. Third, I stopped at a vet post the other day and had breakfast. And the American Legion. Fourth, I went to another group called Veterans for Peace. It’s very much like as a Congressman, and even afterwards, for four or five years I went into a prison every year to visit some veterans there. There’s a different way to connect. So we are living here, trying to secure the beachhead as you might say, with a very good ground game. But we also have the air campaign, which I’m doing with you. But I’m trying to make sure that people understand that yes, there was a reason to I was late—I mean Bill Clinton came in around the same time I did. Even in today’s environment, I understand why they say it. But I have the time. If I work it like you and I just discussed—because Iowa is a very grassroots place—to get my message out, slowly raise the funds we need to get it more and more out, and that’s my plan. 

Your daughter had brain cancer, and you’ve supported the Caroline Pryce Walker Conquer Childhood Cancer Act, and you’ve co-chaired the Pediatric Cancer Caucus. What are your plans for looking at federal efforts to combat diseases, including cancer? 

Yes, you know my daughter’s cancer came back this past year. To give an example of one of the first things I would do is end this administration’s efforts to do a 12% cut in funding for the National Institute of Health. The research they do is awesome, and it saves lives, including my daughter’s. She was on an NIH clinical trial, when she had her first cancer. Only 8% of children will ever survive, and hardly any adult has glioblastoma. So we were very fortunate that the Walter Reed Military Hospital happened to be across the street. The treatment they were doing—she was able to have, and it saved her. This time, she’s on a new drug that didn’t even exist back then that was actually only first approved for metastasized breast cancer.

But the issue is that that was developed through efforts like NIH research, and she could not have done the same drug that she could do because it was so harsh. Half the children died because it was so strong. But they had no choice. So that’s why NIH money is so important, from a personal perspective, and that’s why I went to Congress and helped establish the Pediatric Cancer Caucus. Because, as you pointed out, I went out to do a lot of things but we had an act that actually set aside X amount of money. I helped join up, in a bipartisan way, to get funding for the NIH directly allocated for children, which it hadn’t been before. But I very much believe that investment is exactly what it’s for. 

I also think we need to update the 21st Century Cures Act and increase the funding for President Obama’s initial cancer moonshot program, which is only one of the programs under the NIH innovation project. It’s set to run out in a short period. I also believe very strongly that we have to keep the Affordable Care Act. I stopped cuts that harmed it there and stopped cuts in Medicaid and Medicare. I will never forget when my daughter was going through her chemotherapy, when she was young. Her roommate was a young boy, diagnosed also with cancer, but we listened as social workers who were trying to work make sure that they could have healthcare. When you’re cutting healthcare access, or you’re cutting (as this administration is) Medicaid or Medicare, or outside of the Affordable Care Act, that plans can actually limit how much treatment you get, so you’re halfway through your radiation and you paid your top dollar, we ended that. But then all of a sudden you’re hurting those with cancer, who can’t have access at all to healthcare, or they get cut off.

And I know this because we kept our office during the Great Recession, until 9:00 at night, seven days a week. We handled I think 18,000 cases, four times the average Congressional office during those four years. We had no choice, it was like warfare. You set up a MASH station, and people who were injured would be coming in from the war. We were having a civil war here at home and there was carnage that was happening when people’s homes foreclosed, and losing jobs. We kept it off and saved over 800 homes, for example, but there was a woman I’ll never forget, one of the first ones we handled, was denied care because she missed one payment, because under a policy called rescission, if you miss a payment, they have the right to go back and deny you care, and we ripped that out of the Affordable Care Act. So I walked in my constituents’ shoes and the 19-person bipartisan legislation I passed in my first two years, and I was called the most productive Congressman. And that’s how you really walk in your constituents’ shoes. So that’s why I ran—national security begins at home, and health security. So that’s why I thank you for bringing up that last issue.

You were considered one of the ideological centers in the House during your tenure. Right now, how does that role save you when some commentators say the Democratic party is drifting too far to the left?

I think that I am able to—which I did in my Republican district—have people see me as someone who looks at the facts and then lays out a vision to accomplish them. And then we’ll be open and transparent and talk about, and I meet them, while making it towards the goal. So for example, when I was asked in another interview today about Medicare for all and single payer. And I told her that I voted for a public option in Congress, and that would be a choice for transitioning to single payer, which in the VA, VHA, New England Journal of Medicine, Rand Corporation, have all said how great they are. Because I know we’ve got a problem with the benefits and getting in. That’s got to be fixed and I have ways to fix that. But if 255 million Americans are on private health coverage, like I was, and all of a sudden you’ve got to rip it out, change my daughter’s seeing doctors under my old healthcare plan, I don’t know if I’m going to have them, they saved her once and they are her heroes—wait a minute, let’s make sure you have a transition of choice, and we can measure how well it’s proceeding as people see lower costs, better access, great doctors, why not get into this.

That was the plan, and I think we need to go back to it. When you sit and talk to people—that’s why I love these people and going around—I’d love to have a town hall in the middle of America. To demonstrate how I’m going to do business. I’m willing to listen. As an admiral I went down to the mess decks at 2 am or, 3 am in the morning and every time, it’s open 24 hours a day, had my breakfast or dinner there at 3 am or 4 am in the morning, talking with the crew, just chatting. They’d ask questions. After a while they, got used to it. It didn’t mean we had agreed. I just wanted to hear what they thought, and this way they could speak up. And that went a long way, and that’s where I think it’s a real difference, that you actually have somebody running that can actually win a Republican district nearly 2 to 1 without spending a dime on a campaign. That’s the kind of accountability this nation most needs if you want to unite all Americans. And if we don’t, we’re not going to meet the defining challenges of our time, whether it’s climate change, China, trying to get training for a lifetime for the workforce, we just won’t be able to do it.

Thank you for a great conversation today, Congressman Sestak. 

Thank you very much.

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