Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sestakgate: The Democrats' New Nightmare

It’s very possible that by the end of the summer Democrats will be wishing that Arlen Specter was their Senate nominee in Pennsylvania. Joe Sestak told the truth and because of his honesty the biggest White House scandal since Monica Lewinsky is percolating between news stories about oil spills and immigration.

One almost has to feel sorry for the players involved in this one. During the Democratic senate primary campaign, Rep. Sestak stated several times that the White House had offered him a job in the administration if he agreed to drop out of the race. His exit would have resulted in a clear path to the nomination for Specter, the White House’s favored candidate.

My guess is that when Sestak admitted that he had been offered the job, he didn’t know that what the White House had done was illegal. In fact, I’m guessing that many Americans were surprised when they found out that offering high profile government jobs in exchange for political favors was against the law. We all know that this kind of thing happens all the time in Washington. Perhaps even those in the White House who approved the offer didn’t know of the practice’s illegality. Many of the administration’s higher-ups have spent their lives entrenched in the Chicago political where it’s common to turn a blind eye to far more egregious behavior. It’s totally believable that President Obama himself just assumed that the offer to Sestak was totally lawful.

But ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking the law. Now Sestak is the Democratic senate nominee and his disclosure of the political favor offered to him could very well serve to throw into complete chaos an administration that is already plummeting in the polls.

There are only a few ways that this story can play out.

The best scenario for the White House would be if Sestak were to recant and claim that the whole thing had been a big misunderstanding and that he was never offered any job to begin with. But no one’s going to buy this. If Sestak goes down this path in an effort to protect the administration he loses all credibility in a Senate race where credibility and an image of incorruptibility was his greatest asset. This race was going to be close anyway. If Pennsylvanians think that Sestak is just another slippery Washington pol, in what is shaping up to be a very anti-Washington year, then he’s probably going to lose, putting a big +1 in the GOP’s 2010 Senate column.

Of course, if Sestak cares more about winning his Senate seat than protecting the administration he could publicly disclose who offered him the job and what job it was that was offered. No one would blame Sestak for choosing this path, since he himself has done nothing wrong or illegal. Under this scenario Sestak would be free to run his Senate race without a cloud hanging over his head, although he almost certainly will get no help from the administration after throwing it under the bus. (Not that the absence of Obama’s support in a campaign is necessarily a bad thing for a Democratic candidate these days.)

Once names are named, the nation’s focus will turn to the Obama Administration. Heads should begin to roll. Those heads will likely belong to administration officials who are very close to the President himself. Obama’s principle political operatives Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett are likely to draw the most attention since one of them was probably responsible for delivering the message offering Sestak the position.

But even the embarrassing resignation by someone in Obama’s inner circle won’t be sufficient to put this matter to rest.

There was no chance that Sestak would have dropped out of the race unless the White House had offered him a job with a higher profile or more political power than that which he would have acquired as a U.S. Senator. The White House must have known that Sestak would never abandon his challenge to Specter in exchange for a position as the ambassador to Bangladesh or Undersecretary of Transportation. In all likelihood Sestak was offered a job as the Secretary of the Navy or some other high level position that would require the go- ahead from President Obama himself before it was offered.

If it is discovered that the president was complicit in this, things could get very bad for the Democrats. Of course, it represents yet another strike against an already struggling party in the lead up to the fall elections. But if the GOP somehow manages to regain control of the House of Representatives, then investigations and perhaps more severe charges leveled against administration officials are sure to follow. Indeed, embarrassment might be the least of Obama’s worries once the facts really begin to come out.

When asked for the umpteenth time about the Sestak situation, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs brushed concerns aside claiming that “....people who have looked into it assure me the conversations were not inappropriate in any way.”

But if Gibbs is so sure of this then it behooves the administration to release the details of its interactions with Sestak so that we can put all of this talk of impropriety behind us.

Many recent administrations have had to deal with some kind of scandal. Nixon was brought down by Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Monica Lewinsky. But all of those major controversies exploded well into each president’s second term. If Sestakgate reaches a boiling-point prior to or even shortly following the first mid-term election of Obama’s presidency, it could cripple him politically. This would almost certainly result in cementing a rather grim legacy for Barack Obama’s presidency.

On the other hand, many would say that he was already well on his way to solidifying his place in history as one of America’s lower quality chief executives before anyone even knew who Joe Sestak was.

-Dan Joseph

UPDATE: Today at his press conference Obama finally commented on this matter saying:

"There will be an official response shortly on the Sestak matter. I mean shortly -- I don't mean weeks or months. ... I can assure the public that nothing improper took place."

Translation: I will address this matter as soon as my lawyers figure out a way to get around the improper behavior that clearly took place.

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