Obama's Bogus Watergate

The criminalization of ordinary political horsetrading.

The extreme polarization of modern politics has led to an environment in which charges of criminality are carelessly thrown around on a daily basis.  Many Americans have become so jaded as to tune it out, figuring that most politicians are liars and cheats anyway, so what's the difference?  There are some actual felonies committed; Sen. Jefferson of the cold hard cash and Gov. Blagojevich are now behind bars for rank corruption.

It begins to look like, just possibly, Barack Obama is at risk of joining them.

Bribery: Not Just In Cash

We're all familiar with the concept that you are not allowed to pay for political favors.  Hardly a year goes by without some politician or other being convicted for that sort of obvious corruption, from almost all recent governors of Illinois to Sen. Jefferson (D, LA) of $90,000 cold-hard-cash fame.

Money, though, is not the only illegal form of bribery.  Federal law says:

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, 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, or in connection with any primary election or political convention or caucus held to select candidates for any political office, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both. [emphasis added]

Now comes Rep. Joe Sestak who is running for a Senate seat.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) said yesterday that the White House offered him a federal job in an effort to dissuade him from challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in the state's Democratic primary.

The disclosure came during an afternoon taping of Larry Kane: Voice of Reason, a Sunday news-analysis show on the Comcast Network. Sestak would not elaborate on the circumstances and seemed chagrined after blurting out "yes" to veteran news anchor Kane's direct question.  [emphasis added]

This disclosure took place months ago - back in February, actually.  Compare the report to the law, and anyone can see that Rep. Sestak publicly made an allegation that Barack Obama, or at least one of his high officials, committed an illegal act.

Why is there nobody being questioned by the Justice Department?  For one thing, they don't know where to begin: Rep. Sestak has refused to provide any more information about the event - not the exact job he was offered, not who did it, not nothing.  He threw an accusation out there, but refuses to help catch the crook; how odd!

One suspects that a federal subpoena might loosen his tongue, but such papers would have to be issued by an Obama appointee, which somewhat reduces the probability that anything at all will be done about the alleged crime.

Since then, the politics have become worse.  Political junkies may recall how Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter used to be a Republican but was persuaded by Barack Obama to cross the aisle last year so as to give the Democrats a temporary supermajority until the voters of Massachusetts took it away.  As part of the deal, Mr. Obama promised to do his best to make sure Specter wouldn't face an opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary election.

Barack Obama may be famous for breaking promises, but this was one promise he pretty much had to keep.  Any organization wants to encourage traitors from the other side which requires lavishly keeping your promises to reward them.  The last thing you want to do is to screw over someone who used to be your enemy but betrayed their old side by joining yours; word gets round, and any other potential traitors will think twice next time or maybe even thrice.

Famous traitor Benedict Arnold promised to betray West Point and his army to the British in exchange for which he'd be commissioned as a British general and receive an annual pension of £360 and a lump sum of over £6,000.  Through no fault of Arnold's, the plot failed; instead of a major fort and a captive army, all the Brits wound up with was a renegade general.  Nevertheless, they kept their promise; Arnold got his commission and his money, and died peacefully in bed decades later.

Under the law, Mr. Obama had not the power to promise Specter a clear field, merely that he'd try to help provide one.  If Sestak is telling the truth, Mr. Obama kept his promise but broke the law.  Either way, it didn't work; Sestak challenged Specter in the primary and beat him.

Which leaves the Obama administration in a most awkward fix.  Supporting Specter availed him naught; they now are left with a Democratic candidate who's publicly accused the White House of committing a crime.

They can't attack Sestak directly, however; after all they need another Democrat in the Senate.  How do you say, "This guy is delusional, but please vote for him anyway"?  Just last week, Mr. Obama rolled out a patently ridiculous "explanation": that Bill Clinton had offered Sestak an unpaid (thus, marginally legal) advisory position which it would be illegal for him to accept unless he also lost his Congressional seat.

Naturally, the Republicans are having a field day; equally naturally, the mainstream media are doing their best to make this inconvenient issue go away and failing miserably.  Lost in the morass is a more important question: why, exactly, is this a crime?

The Criminalization of Politics

Americans are starting to realize that there are so many laws and regulations that everyone is in violation of something or other at every moment; the only reason we aren't all in jail is because no enforcer happens to have noticed.  Tick off the wrong powerful person, or just get unlucky, and anyone can be instantly doomed without notice or criminal intent.

The same is true, only more so, in the political arena.  Since most politicians are lawyers anyway and their fundraising covers the cost of additional legal counsel at no cost to them personally, they generally avoid getting caught breaking even the most tangled and arcane laws.  Normal people who unexpectedly find themselves in a political melee tend to get torn to shreds, as Joe the Plumber discovered two years ago.

The intentionally complex and counter-intuitive rules serve a very important purpose: they keep political office confined to those elites who have been born to that role or properly inducted by their fellows and exclude normal people who make the mistake of relying on common sense.

For example: a rational person would think that talking to donors is a normal part of a politician's daily job.  Not so!

It's illegal for a Congressman or Senator to talk to a donor on the government-provided phone in their government-provided office while sitting in a government-provided chair; they must walk down the hall to a special room paid for by their party with its own chairs and phone lines.  When ordinary Mr. Smith arrives in Washington and has the natural human reaction to call his friends exultingly from his new office... bam!  Gotcha!

Again: one would reasonably suppose that a politician would want to be assisted by people he can trust, and who is more trustworthy than family?  Yet putting your family in paid positions, even positions to which you have the legal authority to fill and for which you hold political responsibility for any foul-ups, often violates nepotism laws.  Instead, you're stuck with either the people who your predecessor put in those jobs, or you must select candidates from the professional political class - just those people who are least likely to support your particular platform or career, and instead to further the unimpeded growth of government.

Assume, for a moment, that Mr. Obama did in fact offer Joe Sestak an appointed executive position in exchange for not running against Specter.  No cash money was involved, or steering a government contract to a favored vendor.  This is not true corruption; it's horse-trading, the very stuff politics is made of.  It happens every day; it's how politics gets done.

It is Barack Obama's legitimate and fully constitutional right to appoint whomever he pleases to various offices; why shouldn't he be allowed to pick them however seems best to him?  If political tradeoffs are involved, so what?  The art of compromise is why we have a Congress; they are supposed to meet, exchange favors, compromise on bills, and reach some sort of consensus that works for everybody.  Should the American people come to disapprove of a politician's appointments or bargains, they always have the ability to express their opinion at the next election.

Otherwise, one of two things will happen: nothing at all will get done (not bad in and of itself, but it leaves the bureaucracy with sole power to fill the vacuum) or whoever is in the majority can do anything he likes at all until the other side wins and can now do anything they please (a tyranny of the majority, which the Founders wanted to avoid, because it creates horrendous whiplash when the parties alternate.)

Time for a Fix?

Barack Obama's attempt at a political horsetrade failed noisily and publicly.  But it shouldn't be illegal.

In fact, as tempting as it is for Republicans to bash Obama with this cudgel, it would be of more long-term help if they instead took the opportunity to change the law.  Because Democrats have long had the media on their side, this sort of regulation is much more likely to ensnare Republicans: reporters will spike stories and carry water for Democratic offenders while howling for the heads of Republicans who do the same thing.  Wouldn't it be wiser just to make the inherent practices of politics legal?

Right now, Mr. Obama would probably breathe a sign of relief at signing a bipartisan "Practice of Politics Reform Act" stating that his actions, whatever they really were, aren't a prosecutable offense - and neither is anything else similar.  As you'd expect of something that is inherent to politics, Joe Sestak is not the only Democrat challenger who's been receiving job offers.  Change the law, and all those problems go away - and with them, countless future problems for Republicans too.

Then, maybe Joe the Plumber could successfully run for office, with his ordinary common horse sense as a steppingstone and not a stumbling block.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Politics.
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