Yes, Halter and Sestak are challengers from the left

Greg Sargent
Copyright 2010
Monday, May 17, 2010; 3:41 PM

Cross-posted from The Plum Line. Let's be clear about this: Bill Halter and Joe Sestak, in broad terms, represent challenges from the left, and their success is fueled by the energy and intensity of liberal activists. There's a meme bubbling that this isn't really true -- that it's not because of any genuine liberal challenge to the Dem establishment that Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln are suddenly at risk. For instance, in his generally excellent column today, E.J. Dionne hints at this: "While Sestak does enjoy some support from progressive online groups, it's impossible to cast the race as a left-vs.-center showdown, especially since Sestak supported Obama's surge in Afghanistan while Specter, trying to curry favor on the Democratic left, opposed it." Other commentators have suggested this in various ways, too, arguing that if Lincoln and Specter are in trouble, it's because of generalized anti-incumbent fervor. That's true, but it's only part of the story. Dionne's column is primarily about skewering the bogus notion that there's an equivalency between the ideological "purgings" we're seeing on right and left. And he's right. But there's another key point here: Halter and Sestak are mounting generally liberal challenges to their incumbent foes -- and despite this fact, there's still no equivalence between them and the ideological purgings we're seeing on the right. That's because Halter and Sestak are trying to pull Lincoln and Specter in line with the Democratic mainstream, which neither represents. Lincoln and Specter are enjoying Dem establishment support despite being ideologically to the right of mainstream Dem positions. Their challengers are fueled by an energetic grassroots effort to let the Dem establishment know this isn't acceptable. The Tea Party brigade, by contrast, is pulling candidates to the right of mainstream Republicanism. Therein lies the difference. Dionne points out that Halter doesn't embrace the "liberal" label. That's true, but he is ideologically more liberal than Lincoln on various issues. Lincoln opposed the public option; Halter favored it. Environmental groups see Halter as more reliable on climate change. Yes, Halter has equivocated on the Employee Free Choice Act, but he has said he favors a compromise on it. Yes, labor is pouring millions into Halter's campaign partly to prove they're a force to be reckoned with, but that's hardly the only reason. Dionne argues today that Specter and Sestak "occupy essentially the same philosophical space in the Democratic Party." If that's the case, it's because Sestak's challenge has forced Specter to join him in that space on various issues. Sestak's support for the nomination of controversial nominee Dawn Johnsen prodded Specter to support her. Specter embraced the public option and the Employee Free Choice Act after he began facing a primary challenge. Specter voted against Elena Kagan for Solicitor General and won't say whether he'll confirm her to the Supreme Court. Sestak supports her. The whole premise of Sestak's campaign is that he's long held mainstream Democratic positions on a whole host of issues while his opponent has held Republican ones. And this argument happens to be true. No question, it's an oversimplification to say that Sestak and Halter represent a uniform liberal challenge. But the larger storyline is clear: The energy animating these two challenges is rooted in the case that reliably mainstream Democrats are preferable to candidates like Specter and Lincoln, who have wandered off to the Democratic reservation on specific issues. That, at bottom, is a challenge from the left.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company