While it's widely accepted that the midterm elections were largely a referendum on the war in Iraq, it's far from clear what impact the new Democratic-lead Congress will have on policy in the Middle East. Joe Sestak (D-District 7) — recruited to run for office based on his national-security credentials — is among newly elected lawmakers who want Congress to press for a timetable for troop withdrawal.
"We have to work toward a wise and sensible strategy to redeploy troops from Iraq by at least the end of next year," said Sestak, who has referred to the war as a tragic "misadventure."
"With this election, we have looked [at] ourselves in the national mirror and said that we can do better than that," he continued. "American citizens are arguing not for isolation, but for a better approach to our security concerns across the world."
Sestak has also argued that the United States should be more involved in negotiations with North Korea and Iran, and that America needs to step up its role as a broker between the Israelis and Palestinians. Many hold that such a role would essentially involve pressuring Israel to make concessions, but Sestak continues to insist that he's a staunch supporter of Israel.
Considered an underdog when he entered the race, Sestak handily defeated 10-term-incumbent Curt Weldon with 147,347 to the Republican's 114,056.
Weldon was still the favorite until Oct. 16, when FBI investigators raided the homes of his daughter, Karen, and a campaign advisor, looking into, among other things, whether Weldon used his office to get lobbying deals for his daughter.
The raid came during a time when voters were already angered over corruption allegations tied to the GOP, ranging from lawmakers associated with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to the resignation of former Florida Congressman Mark Foley, after what has become known as the "Page Scandal." Many analysts say that's why Sestak won by such a wide margin, while two surrounding district races turned out to be nail-biters.
Sestak — a native of Springfield, Pa. — graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1974; he rose to the rank of vice admiral. He's also served as an analyst for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as director of the Navy Quadrennial Defense Review, and worked on the National Security Council staff under former President Bill Clinton.
Just back from a congressional orientation session in Washington, Sestak said that he's still not certain of committee assignments, but that he'd like to serve in a capacity where his defense experience could be utilized. (After taking it relatively easy immediately after the election, he's now working on setting up a district office and hiring staff for his Washington office.)
Speaking of military issues, Charles Rangel (D-New York) — who's expected to become the next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — has called for the reintroduction of the draft, a proposal that was quickly rebuffed by the Democratic House leadership.
"I certainly understand his call for a shared sacrifice. But I disagree," said Sestak.
The primary reason, he said, is purely practical. A soldier today requires such technological know-how that it hardly makes sense for the military to train someone, and then have that person serve only for a year or two.
Other priorities include increasing accessibility to health care and higher education.
"The Democratic Party has to recognize that it wasn't given a mandate by this vote, it was given an opportunity," he said. "We better reach across the aisle, because we are not going to solve problems as a party. If there was one message from the voters, it was to come together to fix these problems."