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.
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.
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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