There was a time when the White House and Rep. Joe Sestak were enemies. Now they’re in the bunker together: Neither wants to talk about whether a White House official tried to get Sestak to drop his campaign for senator by offering him a job. With its reticence, the Obama White House raises some eerie (and, from its perspective, unwelcome) parallels with the Bush White House.
President Obama endorsed Sestak’s opponent, incumbent and recent Democratic convert Arlen Specter, in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary. Included in the standard package of services that accompanies such support is “field-clearing”—encouraging challengers to look for employment opportunities elsewhere. Sestak says that an administration official offered him a job if he’d drop out of the race. He declined and went on to win the party’s nomination. Now he and White House officials are allies in trying to keep the seat in the Democratic Party.
This situation provides a corollary to Kinsley’s law about Washington scandals, which is that the scandal isn’t what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal: Offering a job in exchange for dropping out of a political race actually is illegal. But it’s not that scandalous. In previous administrations and in both parties, this kind of pressure has been applied. And both parties are smart enough to never make any offers explicit. It works like religion (or the mafia, if you want a secular example): The understanding is that, if you do the right thing, your reward will come later.
That may have happened in the Sestak case. We don’t know. And that’s the problem: White House officials won’t talk about what happened, going mum almost exactly as their predecessors did during the inquiry into who in the Bush White House leaked the name of a CIA agent.
The questions about what Sestak was offered have been nagging for months. They were renewed after he defeated Specter. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has responded as he did months ago. “Lawyers in the White House and others have looked into conversations that were had with Congressman Sestak and nothing inappropriate happened,” he said multiple times last week.
Match this response with the one Scott McClellan gave in October 2003 when asked about what White House officials may have said about CIA official Valerie Plame. Reporters wanted to know who said what to whom. McClellan responded: “I spoke with those individuals … and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this.”
The problem with both responses, of course, is that we can’t just take the word of White House officials. Sestak says the offer was made, and the White House admits there were conversations. At least three laws might have been broken, according to Darrell Issa, the Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. With that many, it shouldn’t be up to one of the interested parties to decide whether any laws were broken.
Gibbs sounded even more like McClellan at a press briefing last Friday, when he successfully ducked 13 questions on the matter. After a while, McClellan learned to duck such inquiries by saying he couldn’t answer questions because a special prosecutor was looking into the matter. That won’t happen in this case. The Department of Justice blew off the request to name a special prosecutor to look into the Sestak matter. That’s better for the White House, because no White House wants an investigation into its internal workings. But it leaves this fish flopping on the deck.
It’s not hard to imagine how the White House could come up with a new response. A little more information will probably make the political pain go away. There are, of course, no guarantees, and one of the reasons White House officials don’t want to get more specific is that once you let out information it also gives your opponents ammunition to call for a broader inquiry.
But this situation is very different than the CIA leak case in the Bush administration. The stonewalling is the same, of course, but the issue at the heart of the two is not. What the White House is covering up now is a purely political act: trying to persuade someone not to run for office. It happens all the time in politics. At the center of the leak case then was an issue of national security: specifically, the principle that the identity of CIA agents should not be made public, especially as part of an effort of political damage control. It was an exceptional story. And it came at a time when the Bush White House was also defending itself in a host of other instances where it massaged facts to make the case for an unpopular war.
So why even make the analogy at all? Because “trust us” isn’t a satisfactory answer—no matter what the question. Building a stone wall is about the wall, not what the wall is hiding. And there’s also the matter that Obama promised new levels of transparency when he ran for office. He promised new levels of bipartisanship, too, and those haven’t materialized. But you can blame the Republicans for some of that. In this case, there’s no one to blame but him. This isn’t the first time administration officials have chosen expediency over transparency. It probably also won’t be the last.