An Interview with Joe Sestak
Joe Sestak, Jr. is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who represented Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district from 2007 until 2011. A former three star admiral, Sestak is the highest ranking military official ever elected to Congress. Sestak served in the United States Navy for 31 years and was the Director for Defense on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. Following the September 11 attacks, he served as the first director of the Navy’s top-secret counter-terrorism unit. Sestak was the fourth Democrat to win the PA-7 since the Civil War, and was named the most productive member of his legislative class. In the House, Sestak served on three committees and handled three times the average number of constituent complaints.
The Politic: Former four-star Admiral and Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark once described you as “a patriot’s patriot.” Can you please speak to why you believe public service is so important?
JS: I believe that America’s character is based on an alliance where the rugged individual is allied with the common enterprise. It’s where one’s best drive for one’s own individual achievement is never measured apart from the greater effort. In short, when you really step back and think about it, one cannot do better for oneself than serving others. And so that has been my life — first in the Navy and then to pay back this nation in Congress.
The Politic: At one point in your naval career, you commanded an air craft carrier battle group that conducted operations in Afghanistan and Iraq with 30 U.S. and allied ships and more than 15,000 sailors. Can you discuss how this experience shaped your views of how the military should operate and your approach to politics?
JS: I learned in the Navy that each individual should be all [he or she] can be, but that one can never be measured apart from the common mission. And that knowledge helped me as far as my approach to politics and policy. I love rugged individualism, but I want to make sure that we don’t endanger the common enterprise of America with unfettered individualism. I learned great principles of responsibility, yes, but also accountability for that responsibility, where you really know that at the end of the day leading individuals into harm’s way, you are accountable for the mission and for those individual youths. And finally, I learned that an organizational approach to an issue [greatly helps you]. You know, successful generals win and then they go to war. The ability to strategize — to plan an organization and operation and then to be able to be flexible enough to change that is also something that helped me to well in politics.
The Politic: When you served as the first director of the Navy Operations Group (Deep Blue) you worked to rein in military spending. Can you speak to how exactly you did that and how further cuts (if any) to the military should be made?
JS: When I was a three-star, I was in charge of cutting from $70 billion of warfare programs. And in that job, I recommended that the Navy didn’t need 315 ships, it needed about 240 to 250. [This was] because I came to recognize at Deep Blue that the military was using the wrong metric to measure its power. [Military leaders were asking] how many aircrafts, how many ships, how many brigades, how many divisions? And the real metric of the future was capability, not numbers. It was the capability to know where your adversary was so that you might act and take men out more swiftly or say today is not your day and don’t act. Reading those numbers was how we got bin Laden. And so what I recommended and delivered to Congress was a plan — a shipbuilding plan that recognized we were using the wrong metric. And while we were a good Navy, we were not the most cost-efficient nor the most effective Navy. So rather than 54 submarines, we recommended 34, and we moved the money into knowledge-based systems that could acquire knowledge quickly for our warriors to better do their mission. And that’s how I approached it. A better, more cost-efficient military and better accountability for the resources the citizens provide us will benefit us in the forces. That was really the strategy behind it. It was an understanding of why we could do more — better — with less.
The Politic: What exactly is your view of proper military force?
JS: Proper military force means using force in accordance with what is in the United States’ interests. And we have three interests. First, we have vital interests that have to do with the survivability of our nation, for which we will do anything. Second, we have important interests — those that have to do with changing the character of the world, and that if we don’t address them with military force, will harm our peace and prosperity. This was Bosnia. And third, we have humanitarian interests, where often it is not U.S. force that is needed, but U.S. forces, often in logistics or safeguarding an area, such as what we didn’t do in Rwanda — because these have to do with our ideals. In the case of vital interests, we’ll do anything. [When dealing with] important and humanitarian interests, we need to assess the benefits versus the costs. And if the benefits are greater than the costs, this means we that we must appropriately use our military force. We need to be able to determine the appropriate amount of military needed and what is the proper benchmark and metric to measure success.
The Politic: Did you support military operations in Libya?
JS: I did not, because of what I just stated. I felt that the President had not provided the nation with a clearly defined and achievable mission, where the use of military force was carefully matched to the political objectives. I [also] don’t think [President Obama] provided an assessment of potential benefits versus the risks and the costs to the American people. Nor [did he provide] a timeline with specific, quantifiable milestones to let us know the extent of progress. And so I felt very strongly that it’s not just what you do, but how you do it. And while I understand the explanation of some that we might not want a third intervention into a Muslim country, the constituency that I felt should have been most important to the President — when so many had lost faith in our government and trust in our leaders — was the American citizens that needed an accounting up front of why we are going to use military force. And I felt that the President did not address our citizens’ concerns before addressing the legitimate sensitivities abroad. I think evidence of this failure is that this was the first intervention since Gallup polls started that the U.S. public did not support as a majority. And that gets back to the issue that we have lost faith and trust — understandably — in our leaders in both parties and in all institutions across the board, from Wall Street to labor unions. I’m glad [the situation] came out the way it did, particularly since NATO, led by England and France, was just about out of gas, but that’s why I did not support it.
JS: My daughter was struck with a malignant disease — brain cancer — and my wife and I needed to address that above anything else. And because of the healthcare plan that this nation provided in the military, my daughter is now 10 — not only going on 22 — [and] has an individual opportunity to contribute to this nation. I wanted to also pay back this nation that gave her an opportunity to have a future to contribute. And that’s what drove me into politics — to pay back a wonderful country.
The Politic: You were the fourth Democrat elected to the PA-7 district since the Civil War. Why do you think that is? Why do you think you were able to win where so many Democrats had failed?
JS: First, I think that I addressed with members of my campaign the issues that [were] most distressing Americans at the time. Those were that national security really begins at home, and the education, the health, and the economic strength of our people. That’s what gives us a healthy, productive labor force and members of the military who achieve great things for America. Second, we organized well. Like I mentioned before, we learned hard work in the military and went about our work on a daily basis from dawn to midnight and just worked our hearts out. And third, we applied the principles learned in the military and from my family — who live in my district — of willingness to be upfront, of honesty [and a] willingness to be held accountable for what I said I would do. I didn’t shy away from laying out a healthcare plan that I believed in. [Fourth, I had] a willingness to listen to those that disagreed we me. This, combined with hard work and persistence, and of being — I think — right on commonsensical issues that Americans, on the whole, really believe in, boded well for our campaign.
The Politic: What is your proudest achievement while you were in Congress?
It was the work we did in our district. We kept the office open seven days a week, to 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, every night. We got the youth of America involved in my staff — 15 plus interns. And anyone with an issue, anyone with a problem, could call and come into the office and have access to someone who worked for them — me. I was their public servant. And whether it was providing a never-awarded medal to a World War II veteran in his bedroom two days before he passed away, or helping a family that had a youth who had autism get [him] into the appropriate institutional facility, or helping over 1,600 [people] who had had their mortgages gone under foreclosure and see if we could stymie that damage. And I think that’s what I’m most proud of. Eventually, Americans will be all they can be, but they elect someone to serve them in those moments when they need a little helping hand. And that’s what I’m most proud of.
The Politic: Do you believe that you were able to be a better public servant and make more of a difference in the House or in the Navy?
JS: I think I had a direct impact on a very discrete group of sailors in each command I had in the Navy. But in Congress, there was probably a broader swath of impact that I was able to help bring about. There, I was able to affect legislation that could help small businesses more, [businesses] that create 80 percent of all jobs. And there I was able to work on funding for education — particularly in Pell grants, Stafford loans and other areas — and help people have a fair opportunity and a better opportunity for education so they could contribute even more to our nation. So they were different types [of impact]. I loved the Navy more than anything, even more than serving in Congress; it was my first love. But I learned a lot in Congress about how to affect working people.
The Politic: Why did you decide to run for Senate in 2010?
JS: I was asked by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Senator Menendez and Senator Dodd — and I, demure, wanted time with my family. But after about two months, there were requests that I reconsider and reconsider and reconsider, [and] I agreed. About two weeks later, Senator [Arlen] Spector changed from being a Republican to be a Democrat and I was asked not to run. Having put my family through the rigor [of the process], I decided that this was now my family’s decision, and definitely not the Party’s. And I went through the 67 counties of Pennsylvania to listen and to talk. And in Potter County I met a farmer who, when I asked him how the recession [was treating him], replied with a smile, “Not too bad, I was already hurting!” And right then for some reason I knew that Americans were being left out. My Party’s establishment … placed party above citizen. They actually cared more about keeping a Democrat in power than doing what was needed and using their energy to fight for the right things and for people. And that’s why I finally decided to run.
The Politic: What do you see as the single biggest threat to America today?
JS: I think the biggest challenge to America is how to deal with the emergence of China and India… primarily China and the Western Pacific. It is a challenge, not a threat. It is a challenge diplomatically, financially [and] security-wise for our allies. And we don’t have a lot of margin for error anymore. As they build a middle class — which has always been why America’s exceptional — we must [help] bring [them] into the community of nations. Your generation has the real challenge, but a real opportunity if they pick this challenge up.
The Politic: What do you believe is the best way to stimulate the economy and job creation now?
I think you should design your plays around your star running back, and that’s small businesses. In the last twelve months alone, of the 1.6 million jobs created in America, all of them have been created by small businesses except for 50,000 by corporations. Our tax code is skewed away from the star running back and toward the big corporations that sit on the sidelines. So we should be stimulating them, particularly the small business with 20 people. If you invest in a small business, there should be zero capital gains tax. We should be giving angels [a] 30 percent tax credit to invest in the small businesses for manufacturing. We should be letting small businesses write off their losses. We should be guaranteeing community bank loans to small businesses — up to 98 percent guaranteed so that the rates start falling again. [Small businesses] are the ones that died [in the recession] and they’re the ones that we should be assisting. But the problem is that the Small Business Committee, of which I was Chairman, has a freshman elected to be Chairman. I thought initially it was to show they had a sense of humor in Congress. It wasn’t. Nobody goes there because there aren’t PACs back there. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce money goes to protect big corporations. And what do I mean about big corporations? They’ve made it. They aren’t the job creators. It’s the small businesses that grow [this country]. That’s how we approach the recovery of our economy and [provide for] the emergence of a super economy in America.
The Politic: What are you doing now and what are your plans for the future?
JS: I just finished my thank-yous. I went to each of the 67 counties [in Pennsylvania] and thanked my volunteers that way. And during that time I listened. I’ve talked to various individuals and that [is helping] me determine how I want to do public service, because I will do public service. I just need to decide whether that’s best approached by elected office again — and if so, at what level — or in what area or areas. And that’s what I have been doing.
The Politic: Do you have any interest in challenging Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett in 2014 or even a rematch with Senator Pat Toomey in 2016?
JS: Again, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. [I will work in] public service. But elected office or not? If so, at what level? If not, in what area? That’s what I’m trying to determine in the months to come. My wife’s given me basically a year plus to figure it out.