Topic A : Politics as usual?

Topic A
Sunday, June 6, 2010

The White House took heat this week for discussions about possible jobs in the executive branch with Democratic primary challengers Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and Andrew Romanoff in Colorado. The Post asked experts for reactions. Below are responses from Mack McLarty, Norman J. Ornstein, Dana Perino, Dan Schnur and Richard W. Painter.


President of McLarty Associates and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1994

The president's critics are shocked -- shocked -- to discover that there is politics going on in Washington. Obama's supporters are discovering that their lofty expectations of a new paradigm in Washington have met the reality that politics is a contact sport. Either way, it is hard to find anything unlawful, unethical or unprecedented in what has come forth about these incidents. Time to move on to Topic B and address the serious challenges facing our country.


Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

The White House is guilty, guilty, guilty -- not, as Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) suggested, of an impeachable offense, but of practicing politics as usual. White Houses routinely dangle job offers in front of people they want to get out of an elective office or to entice people they don't want to run from messing up primaries.

When the Sestak matter blew up into a major story, partly because of Issa's sensational statements -- also politics as usual these days -- and partly because the press obediently pumped up the charges, I argued that Issa might also want to consider retroactive impeachment of Ronald Reagan, whose White House directly offered S.I. Hayakawa a job if he declined to run for the GOP nomination for Senate in California. Issa could demand an inquiry into the Bush White House's discussions with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) about a cabinet post, which would have cleared the way for Republican Mike Johanns to run for Nelson's seat in 2006. And what should happen to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who said he would lead the Commerce Department only if President Obama could promise that his successor -- who would have been appointed by a Democratic governor -- would be a Republican?

At first blush, the Romanoff story looked more questionable, especially after Romanoff offered a less-than-full account of his own efforts to secure a post in the Obama administration. But the fact that Romanoff had sought a job in the U.S. Agency for International Development makes the e-mail to him from White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, listing the job descriptions of three relevant posts, much less significant. None of that is either impeachable or illegal.

Other than hypocrisy, the biggest White House failure here was a failure to respond to the emerging story, believing that it would go away of its own lack of real weight. These days, stories of purported scandal don't go away, even if they are lighter than helium.


White House press secretary to President George W. Bush

When you're in a hole, stop digging. And when you're at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, ask for a rope. The rope the White House needs is an independent reviewer to take an objective look at whether any laws were broken.

The last thing the Obama administration needed was another self-inflicted wound. There were the acts themselves, the three-month stiff-arm of the press, and then a news conference during which Obama knew the answer but was advised or chose not to respond to a question about the White House's discussions with Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak. This was followed the next day with an ambiguous memo in which the president's own lawyer conveniently cleared the president's own staff. In America, that's not good enough.

And now that the White House has created this cloud of suspicion, the only thing that will clear it away is an independent review. It may be that the administration broke no laws -- but without a review, no one will ever know. A nonpartisan review is the only credible outcome for them in the long run. This isn't partisan advice; it's stating the obvious.


Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

Party leaders on both sides of the aisle have been strong-arming candidates in and out of campaigns for as long as races have been run, and this administration's efforts to coerce Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff are not significantly different from hardball tactics employed by its predecessors. But this country is experiencing the strongest wave of anti-establishment populist rage we have seen in a generation, which might not be the ideal political landscape for White House staff to engage in this type of power-brokering. Especially when you're working for a president who promised as a candidate to change the culture of corruption in Washington.

It's also worth remembering, however, that the standard for success in Washington is based not on ethics but effectiveness. When President Obama appointed Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman the U.S. ambassador to China, his advisers were hailed as geniuses for removing a top-tier Republican presidential candidate from the 2012 campaign. But when those same advisers more recently failed to convince Sestak and Romanoff to step aside, they were derided as incompetent. The lesson to be learned, as Napoleon used to say, is: "When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna." Or when you want to bribe a politician with a new job, it's a good idea to offer him a better job than the one he already has.


Law professor at the University of Minnesota and chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007

It is unlikely that the law was broken in either the Sestak or Romanoff discussions. The Romanoff incident was more problematic because White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina made the call, whereas President Clinton spoke to Sestak. Messina is bound by the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act, however, is very permissive in allowing partisan political activity by White House staff. Messina's actions are close to the line but hardly unprecedented. Even harder to support is the accusation of a quid pro quo -- an administration job in return for dropping out of a Senate primary -- and possible violation of bribery laws.

Instead of wasting taxpayer money on investigations, GOP critics of the administration should focus on passing a law that prohibits partisan political activity by White House staff. In particular, a new law should bar the executive branch from approaching any declared candidate about an administration job. Let's call it the "Voter Choice Act of 2010."

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