News Alert: President Endorses Democrat; Is Impeached

The actions taken by White House advisers Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina correspond directly to the following scenarios: the president, at some point during his presidency, decides to campaign for a Democratic candidate. The president, at some point during his presidency, castigates Republicans and urges people to vote for Democrats. The president endorses a candidate in a competitive primary.  Or this tongue-in-cheek example, from Rutgers prof. David Greenberg:


It is discovered that Obama headlined a fundraiser for a Democratic congressional candidate. The GOP cries foul. The press quotes experts saying that while many other presidents have done the exact same thing, Obama promised us something other than business as usual, and that the story--coming on top of the Sestak and Romanoff stories and "Endorsement-Gate" (see above item)--could damage him and even cost the Democrats in the midterms.

These are unremarkable events in our political system because the president is dual-hatted, and because our politics are organized around a two-party system where one party gains power by getting more votes than another. I will grant that the statutes themselves can be interpreted in such a way as to prohibit virtually all political activity by anyone remotely connected with the executive branch. But practice -- and not simply underhanded practice, but open, above-board practice, since the time those laws were written suggests that the law's authors intended them as a bulwark against official corruption, not against the mixing of politics and policy.  In other words, if you apply an originalist reading of these statutes, you will not end up with anything remotely resembling an indictable offense. What keeps this story alive is the media's feeding off the energy that can be generated from deliberately misconstruing the law and its intent.

It would be absurd to construe 18 USC Section 600 as anything other than a law designed to prevent presidents from appointing their friends to office in exchange for doing or not doing something on behalf of the president or someone else.

In neither the Sestak nor the Romanoff example were either candidate threatened with harm for not doing something; they were simply presented with alternatives. (In Romanoff's case, the jobs were alternatives he sought out!)  For Romanoff, there is no quid pro quo because the quid is this case is required for the quo (an administration job that HE sought ought), the quid (running for Senate) would have to be ruled out completely. For Sestak, the White House was simply attempting to nudge him out of a race. No one threatened him with anything, even implicitly. In neither case were the races themselves interfered with.

(This is also the response to accusations that a bribe was offered: "the job offer, however, is hardly a 'bribe' when it is one of two alternatives that are mutually exclusive."  Sestak was offered nothing of value; Romanoff had expressed interest in the job. It is simply not illegal for the White House to offer him an alternative to running against their preferred candidate. There is a reason why no one has ever been prosecuted for this crime. 

Making this distinction is critical, because the moment these claims are treated as valid claims, rather than politically-motivated cant, is the moment that they become legitimate facts worthy of a debate, and of news coverage.   See this story in USA Today: "Obama under fire for election tactics by Sestak, Romanoff." Under fire ... because USA Today has decided that the charges warrant the label.

There are a few other canards to dispense with. In the Washington Post this morning, Republican attorneys William Rivkin and David Burke argue that the White House counsel is incapable of investigating allegations like these, and that a special counsel ought to be appointed. This is the same Rivkin who argued strenuously against the appointment of a special counsel to investigate claims that Scooter Libby leaked Valerie Plame's identity to reporters.  Rivkin claims that the White House counsel cannot reliably investigate potential criminal misconduct among members of the White House staff because of his inherent conflict of interest. But that presumes that every allegation made by a credible political actor of misconduct automatically merits a much wider investigation, because in Rivkin's word there is no real way of distinguishing between a nothingburger and a sumptuous feast unless every single allegation, no matter how transparently silly, is given the same amount of attention. This is a convenient way to tie the White House up in knots as they investigate allegations and their spandrels. 

Some more savvy pundits are using the incident to describe the White House political operation as weak and ineffectual. But it ignores the reason WHY this White House political operation is not strong. That's because it was never designed to be strong; it was not designed to be heavy-handed. AND Obama's team has resisted exerting the type of pressure on lawmakers and candidates that previous administration political teams have, or the environment is such that the White House has no political leverage over candidates and lawmakers. Nothing here smacks of mean-machine-patronage style politics, which is what Chicago is famous for. As I've written before, if the gentle, casual, non-penalizing Sestak-Romanoff job offers exemplify Chicago politics, then give Chicago more of that politics!  

The media ecosystem is such that the denials and fact-checking and common sense will serve to reinforce the conviction (if it, indeed, is real) by those making these allegations that there must be something to the story. A casual question will easily morph into a call for Obama to be placed under oath (and asked what, exactly?) ... or for him to be impeached. To those casually paying attention, the offense is worse.

More potentially pernicious than liberal bias, than the false equivalences bias, than really just about any other bias that journalism that injects into a public discussion of a story, is the power that comes from merely selecting which subjects to cover. Whatever the collection of facts about White House officials attempting to influence primary elections is, it is not a scandal. It is not the type of story that journalists with credibility and experience should be selecting to cover. It's the type of story that journalists ought to resist covering, precisely because the act of giving it attention elevates the arguments that don't correspond with the truth. If journalism is good for anything, it is to provide what Republican Bruce Bartlett calls "quality control" over the narrative. Well, a big mess just slipped by.

Where the White House erred is obvious. In claiming to hold themselves to an ethereal, fairly impossible ethical standard, they are partly responsible for the casual criminalization of regular political discourse. In some ways, this White House has been more transparent and more committed to generally accepted ethical practices. Although Obama never promised to abstain from politics, he invited some of this scrutiny by refusing to delineate what he found acceptable and what he did not.  But this is a venial sin compared to the transgressions of organized journalism.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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