BY SUSAN ESTRICH
Even prominent Republicans, such as former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, agree that you don’t need a special prosecutor to investigate whether former President Bill Clinton can have a conversation with Congressman Joe Sestak about job possibilities other than running for Senate, or whether White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s deputy can call former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff to find out whether he’s interested in jobs other than challenging the state’s incumbent Democratic senator.
Yes, there’s a law against bribing people not to run for office, just like there’s a law against offering money to members of Congress in exchange for their votes on issues. But the elements of the crime, much less the challenge of proving them, pretty much limit prosecutions to sting operations [like Abscam] or cash in the freezer.
The Republicans who are demanding further investigation of White House efforts to protect incumbents from outside challenge include many who, just last week, were criticizing the White House for not managing to convince one of the two Democrats running in a special election in a Democratic district in Hawaii to drop out of the race. They are doing what the White House itself stands accused of doing. It’s called politics.
That is not to say they don’t have a point, or that they aren’t scoring some.
President Obama got elected, in part, by running against business-as-usual politics in Washington. He promised transparency and reform and open doors and all kinds of good things every outsider – Democrat or Republican – who is running for office is promising.
Then he won, and he turned to some experienced D.C. hands, starting with Emanuel, to ensure that when he got to town, he could get something done. And he has. Agree with him or not, this administration has passed major legislation – starting with the stimulus package and health care reform.
Against the odds disfavoring an incumbent party in the middle of a still-painful jobs recession, not to mention a disastrous oil spill, they are fighting hard to protect their majorities in the House and Senate. If they weren’t, believe me, the knives would be out.
Does that include helping those who have been loyal to the president – who helped give him the 60 votes he once had in the Senate? Of course it does.
But what about Obama’s campaign promises? Has he really been different? Has he really changed the way Washington works?
Maybe not so much. But he got health care reform through. Democrats have been winning special elections [until Hawaii], despite the way the stars are aligned. He seems clearly headed toward victory on financial reform.
How has he done all this?
Politics. Hardball. Being tough and smart and persuasive.
The big mistake the White House made in handling this latest “jobs” crisis was not that they tried to encourage the challengers not to run. It was turning it into anything more than a one-day story about the business of politics. By initially denying that Sestak had been offered anything, by not coming clean at the first reports and not embracing their efforts to assure a Democratic majority through perfectly legal means, they added fuel to the fire.
The desire not to appear too political was, in the end, a political mistake – for which the president is paying. But anyone who thinks you can succeed in Washington without being very skilled at the business of politics should think back to the early years of Jimmy Carter, a decent man who tried to do things differently in Washington, who relied on a cadre of aides inexperienced in the ways of Washington, and who paid a very heavy price for doing so.
Chicago-style politics isn’t any different from the game played everywhere else. They’re just better at it.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer