A Sestak Offer? Criminally Stupid, Not Criminal

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Tim Shaffer / Reuters

U.S. senatorial candidate Joe Sestak

If it's true that the White House offered Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak a job to try to clear the Democratic Senate primary for incumbent Arlen Specter, that's disturbing.

But not because anyone is "participating in the cover-up of a possible crime." This doesn't sound like a "potentially devastating accusation of political corruption," much less an "impeachable offense," no matter what nonsense Michael Steele or Sean Hannity are peddling. Republicans may be calling for a special prosecutor, and even Democratic Senator Dick Durbin wants to know what happened. But it's called politics, and it's not uncommon. News flash: Sometimes the politics of political appointments and political races can get political.

No, what's disturbing about the Sestak job offer is that it sounds like uncharacteristically stupid politics. If the White House did try to clear the primary for Specter, it's incredibly lucky it failed. It's hard to see why President Obama's political operatives would have wanted Sestak out of the race, unless there's something we don't know.

Maybe they thought Specter would have a much better chance to beat Republican nominee Pat Toomey. But why? If Specter had won the primary, the general race would have been all about him; Republicans would have been desperate for revenge, independents would have been justifiably suspicious of an ideologically flexible, flip-flopping turncoat, and Democrats wouldn't have been fired up after voting against him for decades. With Sestak, the race turns into a basic ideological clash between a standard-issue Democrat and an extremely conservative Republican in a Democratic state. Toomey is undoubtedly bummed.

Or maybe the White House understood all that but figured Specter was going to be the nominee anyway and wanted to spare him a bloody primary. But again, why make an assumption like that? Really, all Specter had going for him in a Democratic primary was the support of the White House, which was clearly something the White House could control. Some of us recognized a year ago that there was nothing inevitable about a Bush-Cheney and McCain-Palin supporter like Specter in a primary dominated by Democratic diehards.

Sometimes administrations try to clear primaries to anoint loyalists. But if the White House thought Specter would be a more reliable ally than Sestak down the road, the White House is loco. Specter, a Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat who loves lone-wolf headlines so much, he refused to vote "guilty" or "not guilty" on President Clinton's impeachment, has made it abundantly clear throughout his career that his only reliable loyalty is to himself. Even during the primary, he pandered to the left by criticizing Obama's policies in Afghanistan. Seriously: Would a notoriously prickly 80-year-old Senator have cared what Obama thought about anything? By contrast, Sestak has been a reliable Democratic vote — and he's only 58, so he could be a reliable Democratic vote for many years.

It is true that Specter has been a surprisingly reliable Democrat over the past year, supporting Obama's health care plan (including a public option), Obama's appointees and even the union-backed Employee Free Choice Act, which he had always opposed. But that's precisely because he faced a primary challenge from Sestak! If the White House had lured Sestak out of the race, Specter could have made Obama's life miserable without fear of losing the Democratic nomination — and he would have, because he would have been trying to peel off moderate Republicans and because he's the kind of showboat who loves making people miserable. Ask Anita Hill, or the mistreated staff members who reportedly called him "Mr. Burns" behind his back. Alternative history is all speculation, but Obamacare had zero votes to spare in the Senate, so it's quite possible it would have died if Sestak had taken an Administration job.

So color me perplexed. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel isn't known for dumb politics. And the Administration is being so cagey that it's hard not to wonder if there's more to the story. One enticing theory: Maybe back when Specter was still a Republican, the White House promised to try to clear his primary if he agreed to switch parties. A deal for Specter's party affiliation would have been even shadier than the alleged offer for Sestak's withdrawal from the Senate race, but it would have made political sense. The White House would have at least gotten something for the promise, although it still would have been dumb to try to keep the promise. And who knows? Maybe the White House never intended to follow through with a job for Sestak, or offered him something that wasn't available. Maybe they're trying to hide their backroom duplicity, not their criminal complicity.

Or maybe someone just misjudged the situation. It's certainly possible. In any case, it doesn't mean that someone needs to get frog-marched out of the White House. If political misjudgment were a crime, the entire Beltway would get indicted.