Obama's rusty machine politics

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; 9:16 AM

The Obama team's detractors have long accused them of bare-knuckled, head-butting, Chicago-style political warfare.

If that's the case, the Windy City should be insulted. This crowd isn't very good at strong-arming anyone.

"Chicago" was always a lazy journalistic shorthand, a way of branding the political style of Rahm, Axe and Barack. And the phrase carried a particular punch because Obama has tried to position himself as a post-partisan president.

But reporters have to be careful not to convict Obama of high crimes and misdemeanors for practicing politics as usual.

First the White House made a clumsy attempt to muscle David Paterson out of the New York governor's race (it took a New York Times scandal story to force his withdrawal). Then there was the attempt to persuade Joe Sestak not to challenge Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. Turns out the congressman (who beat Specter last month) was asked by Bill Clinton to consider an unpaid, advisory board job. If that's all it was, the story remains a nothing-burger.

Now comes the tale of Andrew Romanoff, a Colorado Democrat. The White House didn't want him to challenge the appointed senator, Michael Bennet. Obama's deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina, contacted Romanoff last September to see if he was still interested in a post at the Agency for International Development -- which the former state house speaker had applied for after the 2008 election -- or whether he was definitely running for the Senate. Romanoff, who says three possible jobs were discussed, told Messina he was committed to the race, and no offer was made.

If that is indeed what took place, I don't see the scandal. Was the White House trying to entice Romanoff out of running against its preferred candidate? Of course. But these sorts of would-you-be-interested talks take place in every administration. (Robert Gibbs said yesterday that the president didn't know about the Romanoff talks.)

You could argue that Obama removed Hillary Rodham Clinton as a potential rival by offering her -- an incumbent senator -- the job of running the State Department. How about when Obama asked Sen. Judd Gregg to join his Cabinet, which would have knocked a popular Republican out of his New Hampshire seat?

Yes, there's a law governing such transactions, but the fact that it's so rarely used suggests that it is aimed at outright coercion, not routine politics.

ABC's Jake Tapper recalls a 1981 incident involving Reagan's political director, Ed Rollins, and struggling California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa: "Asked by an Associated Press reporter if President Reagan would offer Hayakawa a job if he decided not to run for reelection, Rollins, underlined that the White House was not negotiating with Hayakwa but said: 'If the senator chooses, on his own initiative, not to run for re-election, I'm sure the president would be willing to offer him a substantial administration post.' "

The Obama White House fueled suspicions by dragging out its explanations of what happened, especially in the Sestak case. Again, these folks are not living up to the Chicago brand (which will get a further airing with the opening of Blago's trial Thursday).

So my question: Are the media making too much of these conversations, or not enough?

Politico portrays the situation as a growing crisis:

"The second-guessing of the White House political shop -- which is coming in part from top House Democrats -- was sparked anew late Wednesday by news that the White House tried and failed to coax another Democratic Senate candidate out of making his race by dangling administration jobs in front of him. . . .

"Taken together, the Sestak and Romanoff cases suggest a White House team that is one part Dick Daley, one part Barney Fife.

"They undercut the Obama's reputation on two fronts. Trying to put the fix in to deny Democratic voters the chance to choose for themselves who their Senate nominees should be is hardly consistent with the idea of 'Yes we can' grassroots empowerment that is central to Obama's brand.

"And bungling that fix is at odds with the Obama team's image -- built around the likes of Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Obama himself -- as shrewd political operatives who know the game and always win it."

When you're being compared to Andy Griffith's deputy, I'd say that's not a good sign.

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder says this is all smoke and no fire:

"If former Colorado speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff (D) applied for an administration position at USAID and then followed up with White House officials well before the White House called to see if he was going to run for Senate, then the story of 'yet another White House job offer' has no legs. . . .

"The bottom line to both the Romanoff and Sestak stories has been this: White Houses from time immemorial have far more explicitly dangled jobs in front of rival politicians to prevent them from running against ostensibly safe incumbents. The letter of federal law is designed to prevent direct quid-pro-quo situations where financial incentives are in lay and protect the rival politician from harm should he or she decide to make a decision that goes against the wishes of the powerful executive branch. But that law has never been used to criminalize low-level political horsetrading. . . .

"If this is Chicago-style politics, it's been most ineffective, and kind of weak: polite job offers and friendly chats."

Ambinder includes a disclosure that Bennet is the brother of Atlantic Editor James Bennet, which I hadn't realized.

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen blames the press:

"I hate to disappoint bored political reporters, but this isn't controversial. . . . [It's] silly -- Romanoff applied for a job, so it's hardly scandalous to see if he still wanted it.

"Besides, no one, anywhere, has even tried to explain why this kind of intervention is different from any other White House in American history, or why every single objective legal/ethics expert who's looked at this has concluded there's nothing untoward about the efforts.

"There is no scandal here. There are no Pulitzers to be won. Media professionals are embarrassing themselves by treating this as a legitimate issue."

Indeed, USA Today weighs in with "Obama under fire for election tactics" before acknowledging: "Ethics lawyers and good-government groups agreed that the White House efforts amount to politics as usual in Washington -- as routinely practiced by both political parties."

Time's Mark Halperin, though, says the Romanoff revelation is not so easily dismissed:

"This case seems potentially more serious than the Sestak matter for at least three reasons: the dangler was a government official and not a private citizen/intermediary; the jobs dangled were paid positions (unlike the unpaid advisory slot dangled to Sestak); and Romanoff is not obviously as qualified for these jobs as Sestak was for the position discussed with him."

The Daily Caller's Jon Ward assesses the fallout:

"They cannot seem to get their hands around the building momentum behind the political horse trading story, which is raising questions about whether top White House officials broke the law and is bound to hurt the president's approval rating at a time when it has begun to stabilize closer to 50 percent after a very rough fall."

At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey sees criminal behavior:

"If the White House has been offering people paid jobs in the administration in order to 'avoid costly battles' in primaries, then that breaks the law. The allegations surrounding their dealings with Joe Sestak and Romanoff have been all along that the White House attempted to buy off primary challengers to Democratic incumbents in Senate races. Far from establishing that there has been no wrongdoing, the [White House] statement confirms the allegations.

"With that said, what is the likelihood of prosecution? I'd say minimal, but that's not the big problem for the White House. Instead, these explosions of scandal expose the Obama administration as corrupt. Those expressing surprise that a survivor of Daley Machine politics is less than squeaky clean should be considered intellectually suspect anyway, but Barack Obama managed to fool a lot of people in 2008 with his expressions of Hope and Change. The media refused to vet Obama in the context of his Chicago politics and the backers that propelled him onto the national stage, but they'll be interested in this scandal, especially because they tie into electoral issues.

"Worse, this plays into the growing sense that this administration is incompetent. Even for those who saw Obama as a Chicago Machine pol instead of an agent of change and reform, no one expected him to be so bad at Chicago-style politics."

Yeah, if you're going to be accused of ordering political hits, make sure your aim is good.

More Exaggerations

Is there some kind of virus out there?

"Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kirk apologized today for erroneous statements about his 21-year record as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer and acknowledged more discrepancies between his actual service and the political rhetoric describing his actions.

"Appearing before the Chicago Tribune editorial board, Kirk would not directly answer questions about whether the series of errors amounted to an effort to embellish his . . . military history as he takes on Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias. . . .

"In a new disclosure, Kirk acknowledged that his campaign's promotion of him coming under fire while flying aboard an intelligence reconnaissance plane in Iraq may not be correct because there is no record of whether his aircraft was being fired upon."

May not be correct? Don't these candidates realize their words are going to be scrutinized?

Palin Points the Finger

It would be easy to ridicule Sarah Palin's latest Facebook missive as blaming enviros for the BP debacle, since she, ah, kinda does that. But she raises a larger issue as well:

"This is a message to extreme 'environmentalists' who hypocritically protest domestic energy production offshore and onshore. . . .

"With your nonsensical efforts to lock up safer drilling areas, all you're doing is outsourcing energy development, which makes us more controlled by foreign countries, less safe, and less prosperous on a dirtier planet. Your hypocrisy is showing. You're not preventing environmental hazards; you're outsourcing them and making drilling more dangerous.

"Extreme deep water drilling is not the preferred choice to meet our country's energy needs, but your protests and lawsuits and lies about onshore and shallow water drilling have locked up safer areas. It's catching up with you. The tragic, unprecedented deep water Gulf oil spill proves it."

Put the ideological rhetoric aside -- along with her attempt to justify her "drill, baby, drill" stance -- and there's a valid debate here. Palin wanted drilling in Alaska's ANWR region, which remains off-limits for environmental reasons. Drilling offshore is clearly riskier; that's the tradeoff. Of course, if federal regulators had done their job, BP would never have gotten the permit without a plausible emergency plan.

Another Affair Allegation

As if to make sure we weren't bored after Mark Sanford's divorce, the South Carolina governor's race was rocked by a sexual allegation. National Review's Jim Geraghty says the target of that charge, Nikki Haley, is doing just fine:

"Two weeks before the primary, and shortly after former Alaska governor Sarah Palin attended a rally for Haley at the state capitol, Haley's campaign hit the kind of bump that every campaign manager dreads: Will Folks, a former spokesman for South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, former consultant to Haley, and blogger, declared he had had, before his marriage, an 'inappropriate physical relationship' with the candidate.

"Folks is an unusual character, even by South Carolina standards. He was charged with domestic battery in 2005; he pled guilty while insisting he was innocent, discussing the charges in an op-ed in The State newspaper. . . .

"Haley denied the affair. Folks's initial post indicated he would not be making additional comments about the relationship, but it quickly became clear that he intended to post regular teasing updates, often remarking how everyone in the state wanted to know the details of his claim. Yet after a week of infuriating posts, neither he nor any other publication has shown something that definitively refutes Haley's denials; the state has been left waiting for a smoking gun."

But in what must be an indoor record, Haley has been accused of another (brief) fling, as The State reports:

"Republican gubernatorial front-runner Nikki Haley said Wednesday that a rival, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, is behind a last-minute attack, raising questions about her marital fidelity in an effort to undermine her campaign.

"With less than a week before Tuesday's primary, Bauer's campaign said in a press release Wednesday that a Bauer political consultant, Larry Marchant, was asked to leave the campaign for 'inappropriate conduct not in keeping with the goals of this campaign.'

"Marchant, contacted by The State, said the conduct the press release referred to was a one-night sexual encounter that he had with Haley during a June 2008 school-choice convention in Salt Lake City. 'I disclosed to Andre Bauer several days ago that I had a one-time indiscretion with Nikki Haley,' said Marchant, an influential and well-known State House lobbyist whose clients include BlueCross BlueShield. 'I told him that I didn't want to do anything to discredit his campaign and that I would resign. . . .

"Marchant's claim came on the same day the Haley campaign released a new TV ad decrying the 'dark side' of politics and prominently featuring her husband, Michael, and the Haleys' two children."

This has turned into one ugly campaign.

Here's an interesting note of support from the Daily Beast's Dana Goldstein:

"I'm not on Team Haley because I condone adultery--I don't, though you never know the details of someone else's marriage, and what may have made them stray.

"I'm rooting for Haley because after watching so many men in politics fool around and still manage to hold on to their jobs--Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, Clarence Thomas, John Ensign, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Gavin Newsom, among many others--I hope we have reached the point when a woman, too, can screw up her personal life and still be evaluated on the public stage primarily for her professional achievements."

Hmmm. I guess she could run as a champion multi-tasker.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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