Bill Clinton is now in the middle of the controversy over promises that may have been made by the Obama administration to Rep. Joe Sestak if he would stay in the House and decline to run against Sen. Arlen Specter. Sestak said last year that the White House promised him an important job if he would abstain from the Pennsylvania Senate race. Sestak decided instead to run against Specter, of course, and once he won the race, the controversy over the White House’s promise heated up.
The White House was thus forced to put together an official version of this story. In that version Bill Clinton, at the urging of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, spoke to Sestak about an unpaid position. According to the White House:
Efforts were made in June and July of 2009 to determine whether Congressman Sestak would be interested in service on a presidential or other senior executive branch advisory board, which would avoid a divisive Senate primary, allow him to retain his seat in the House, and provide him with an opportunity for additional service to the public in a high-level advisory capacity for which he was highly qualified.
The White House denied rumors that it offered Sestak the position of Secretary of the Navy. And it claimed that the “opportunity” it was prepared to offer him was an unpaid one.
Frankly, I can’t muster much outrage about this affair, whatever its precise contours. Offering a politician one post in exchange for his forbearance from seeking another is as American as apple pie. It has been said that Abraham Lincoln’s emissaries effectively promised positions to some or maybe even all of his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 as part of the negotiations that led to his own nomination, and we know that each of these rivals did end up in Lincoln’s cabinet. It’s also generally accepted that that Earl Warren supported Dwight Eisenhower for the Republican nomination in 1952 in exchange for a promise that Eisenhower would appoint him to the first vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Nowadays, there’s a statute that prohibits such horse trading. Title 18 U.S.C. Section 600 provides:
Whoever directly or indirectly promises any employment position, compensation, contract, appointment or other benefit provided for or made possible in whole or in part by any Act of Congress, or any special consideration in obtaining any such benefit, to any person as consideration, in favor or reward for any political activity or for the support of or opposition to any candidate or any political party in connection with any general or special election to any political office … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
My first take on this statute is that it applies to both paid and unpaid positions, the latter being encompassed by the term “appointment.” It also would apply to White House officials who used an emissary. Nor would the promise have to be explicit, though an implicit promise would leave room for interpretation.
Would a promise made to Sestak in exchange for staying put in the House be a promise in exchange for political activity? Certainly, it would if Sestak were already in the Senate race – pulling out of a race is political activity. The decision not to run for higher office can also be considered political activity, I suppose.
In sum, it’s possible that someone in the White House, perhaps Rahm Emanuel, violated the statute. If so, a fine and resignation are in order.
But the bigger danger for the administration will arise if its version of the facts turns out to be false and, especially, if the White House is found to have engaged in some form of witness tampering as it put this story together.
I don’t assume that the White House’s story is false, much less that it tampered with witnesses. However, the story doesn’t exactly make me say, “of course.” Rather, it raises such question as: Could the White House have believed that Sestak would pass up the chance to run for the Senate in exchange for an unpaid position on top of his duties in the House? And: Was Sestak lying when he indicated that the job offered to him was a big deal?
More, then, to mull over as the Obama administration, having long ago lost its luster, struggles to maintain even a modicum of its credibility.
SOME POSSIBLE ANSWERS: Could the White House have believed that Sestak would pass up the chance to run for the Senate in exchange for an unpaid position in addition to his duties in the House? No. But Obama may not have cared whether Sestak took the bait. There is no reason to believe he prefers Arlen Specter to the more reliable, less obnoxious (I assume) Sestak. What mattered was going through the motions of keeping the president’s promise to do what he could to help Specter.
Was Sestak lying when he indicated that the job offered to him was a big deal? Well, I’d say he was certainly exaggerating. But it was in his interest to do so. The idea was to present himself as a hero, so intent on serving Pennsylvanians in the Senate that he turned down a plum position to defy the odds and run against Specter.