JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 25, 2010
Any meaningful political scandal must have one of three elements. The highest level of scandal involves some breaking of a law. The next-highest involves breaking some well-established behavioral norm. The lowest level involves a public official lying. The odd thing about the "scandal" of whether the White House offered a job to Joe Sestak is that it involves no credible charge of any of the three. Yet it has inspired scandal-like fulmination from the news media.
Here, for instance, is how NBC's Mark Murray attempts to define the charge:
A direct offer of employment could be illegal under U.S. Code. Republicans point to three statutes that make it a misdemeanor to solicit or receive employment in exchange for political activity or to use one’s official government authority to interfere in an election.
So the accusation is some kind of quid pro quo in which Sestak would receive a job in return for quitting the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. This is ridiculous. You can't offer a Senator, or prospective Senator, a job in exchange for them abandoning the Senate, because accepting the job inherently means leaving the Senate. You can't be both a Senator and an executive branch employee. Last year, the White House offered a cabinet job to Senator Judd Gregg. This was not "in exchange" for him leaving the Senate, because he had to leave the Senate to take the job. Moreover, Gregg briefly accepted the job in exchange for a promise that New Hampshire's Democratic governor would appoint his Republican chief of staff, not a Democrat, to replace him. But nobody suggested that this deal was illegal or unethical.
Most of the fulminations abandon any pretense of charging illegal or unethical behavior. Instead they accuse of the Obama administration of... well, it's not clear, either. Here's Peter Baker's thunderous New York Times article:
the White House wants everyone who suspects that something untoward, or even illegal, might have happened to rest easy: though it still will not reveal what happened, the White House is reassuring skeptics that it has examined its own actions and decided it did nothing wrong. Whatever it was that it did.
What is the charge? Baker does not say. He presumes guilt, and the burden is on the White House to refute the charge of illegal behavior even though none of the critics have defined what such behavior could be. Indeed, later in the article, Baker essentially concedes that nothing illegal or unethical transpired, but changes to accusation to a "lack of transparency":
Even if the conversations were perfectly legal, as the White House claims, the situation challenges President Obama’s efforts to present himself as a reformer who will fix a town of dirty politics. And the refusal to even discuss what was discussed does not advance the White House’s well-worn claim to being “the most transparent” in history.
The Washington Post editorial page makes the same point, essentially conceding that nothing illegal or unusual transpired but demanding that it be exposed anyway:
Still, the White House position that everyone should just trust it and go away is unacceptable from any administration; it is especially hypocritical coming from this one.
So wait. The argument here is that the public has a right to know the details of any conversation the White House had, barring, presumably, national security secrets? I'm generally on the side of transparency here. The administration should have to come clean on any matter where there's a credible charge of illegal or unethical behavior. But just because Obama (like every post-Nixon presidential candidate) promised an ethical and transparent administration, should the media hold him to the absurd standard that it has the duty to reveal any private conversation? Any time a member of the White House speaks with an elected official -- or, heck, anybody -- behind closed doors, the public has a right to know what was said? Obama never promised anything like that. And if such a standard were imposed, politics would cease to function. The whole pseudo-scandal is madness.