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What scandal?

By Dylan Matthews

Dave Weigel has pretty thoroughly debunked the meme that the Obama administration offered Rep. Joe Sestak the post of secretary of the Navy to prevent him from challenging Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Senate primary (a primary Sestak won last week). Ray Mabus was nominated to the position before Specter switched parties, and certainly before Sestak considered challenging him.

Still, Sestak's camp is insisting that the administration made some job offer, and so the story hasn't gone away just yet. Why it's supposed to be scandalous, though, is beyond me. The White House wasn't exactly shy about favoring Specter over Sestak, and it is not shocking to hear that the top Democrat in the nation wanted to avoid a divisive primary in an important Senate contest. One might think such an offer would politicize the position in question, but that's to be expected. It's a political appointment; its tainting by the Senate confirmation process prevents a process based purely on finding the best person for the job, so it's not as though the White House was corrupting a fair process by considering electoral politics.

More to the point, this politicization is only a problem if it results in cronies, or otherwise unqualified people, taking important positions. It's hard to imagine this being the case with any position Sestak would have been appointed to fill. A 30-year Navy veteran who reached the rank of vice admiral and spent two years on the House Armed Services Committee, like Sestak, is more than qualified to be secretary of the Navy. It's harder to evaluate Sestak's suitability for the post the White House actually offered him, as we don't know what it is, but there's not exactly a dearth of positions in the federal government for high-ranking former military officers. It may have looked scuzzy for Obama to offer Sestak a job to protect Specter, but it's hard to imagine it would hurt whatever department he would have been tapped to run.

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post Editors  |  May 25, 2010; 11:22 AM ET
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Sestak wouldn't have been legally qualified to be nominated for Secretary of Navy until 5 years after his active service ended--which would occur this summer, July 2010. That kind of puts a hole in the theory, too--unless they were offering to replace Mabus with him in the future. Say, after the Nov. 2010 elections. Unlikely, I would think.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | May 25, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I'm shocked--shocked, I tell you--to find politics going on in this establishment!

Seriously, offering positions to help making elections more advantageous has been a long, bi-partisan tradition, whatever the specifics of this particular situation. Even if the "worst" is true, it doesn't mean that much.

Although it's a bad sign for the opposition when all they have to go on is attacking the other side for "playing politics". That's like the Pot running on the position that "Don't vote for Kettle! The Kettle is Black! Vote for Pot, Instead!"

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 25, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

It's only a criminal offense when the Republicans are selling government offices. When the Dummycrats sell government offices its good government.

Posted by: JohnKrats | May 25, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

What makes the author think that not having the Senate confirm appointees would result in looking for the best person for the job?

Posted by: williamcross1 | May 25, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

You may not consider it scandalous but selling appointive offices is still a felony.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | May 25, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

the only issue I have with this (as i readily realize that both parties do this) is that they're being very evasive about it.

The issue is when you campaign on a platform of "CHANGE" and you don't CHANGE then you've got some 'splaining to do.

Its kind of like how hypocritical conservatives are that preach family values and then step out on their spouses. Same issue.

And the problem Dylan is that the liberal media has no issues with pushing those buttons but doesn't see the issue here.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 25, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

As Dylan's original post points out, the jobs are called "political appointments," for a reason and so this is really a non-story (compared to ...say... firing US Attorneys for political reasons).

The only thing that tends to keep it alive is the fact that the press can't figure out exactly which job was being discussed, so there is some lingering mystery over the details. Who cares?

The happy ending is all that matters. Sestak declined the offer and skillfully ended creaky old Specter's overly-long stay at the festivities, and everyone (White House included) is fully able to contain their sorrow over that outcome.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

This dust up is beyond ridiculous. I'm pretty sure that in order to be guilty of "selling" the seat, it would have to be established that Sestak would provide something of material value if he were to have "bought" the offer - I don't think the fact that he would have made Obama happy by stepping out of the way would meet the criteria (and as it turns out, would probably have been the wrong choice for trying to keep the seat, anyway, since Sestak is going to generate a lot more enthusiasm among the base for turnout than Snarlin' Arlen ever could have done.)

Posted by: exgovgirl | May 25, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

"Why it's supposed to be scandalous, though, is beyond me."

Well, maybe...because it is potentially a violation of the Federal law and questions from the press should be forth coming to drive answers from the White House. I would think even the most partisan politico would know the law or should we all ignore that fact. Even the White House has acknowledge that something happened, even though they claim that nothing serious, and have asked us to accept "trust us" as an answer. Dylan, did you not take any ethics classes at Harvard?

Posted by: POST-PIRATE | May 25, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

"Well, maybe...because it is potentially a violation of the Federal law..."

On really? You think there is a violation of federal law when a President offers a political appointment to a highly qualified Congressman (and retired Vice Admiral), simply because an added benefit of acceptance of that appointment would be to stave off the possibility of a potentially messy primary challenge?


You guys are like a blind person who fires a shotgun in every direction, every day, in hopes that one day there might be a target out there ~somehwere~ that might accidentally get hit. It is sad to watch.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse


would you at least relent that its unethical to "pay off" a party switch like Obama supposedly did with Specter and then in turn look to clear out his opposition?

Again I don't care if its legal or not because I'm sure Republicans do it too. The problem i have is that this president held up his standards to be above reproach and now that's coming into question and the biggest issue and what's causing it to fester is that its not being answered.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 25, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

"would you at least relent that its unethical to "pay off" a party switch like Obama supposedly did with Specter and then in turn look to clear out his opposition?"


No, I don't see anything unethical there. If, for example, the appointee was a former Arabian horse guy with NO subject matter expertise being appointed to run FEMA for political patronage, I would say that it was cynical and borderline unethical job offer.

But if the candidate is ***well-qualified for the job*** and if the acceptance of that job also then staves off a potential political mess, I would call that a "twofer" (and smart politics), not bad ethics.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse


So if President Bush was still President and saw what was going on in FL and offered Charlie Crist a position that we'll say he was qualified for to get him out of the way for Marco Rubio so he could easily trounce the Dem candidate you'd be OK with that?

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 25, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Here's an explanation:
18 U.S.C. § 595: Interference by administrative employees of Federal, State, or Territorial Governments

Whoever, being a person employed in any administrative position by the United States... uses his official authority for the purpose of interfering with, or affecting, the nomination or the election of any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

So... if Rahm told Sestak that the president would nominate him for an appointed position, or even just give him a job, BEFORE Sestak officially announced he was a candidate for the Democratic nomination (Aug. 4, 2009), then they would have been free and clear in their efforts to "stave off a political mess."

But if an offer came AFTER Sestak became a candidate, then the offer COULD have been illegal. It's that simple. And the fact that Karl Rove et al. are the ones screaming it on cable doesn't change the potential legal culpability.

Posted by: andrewlong | May 25, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse


What you continue to miss in this rather tortured hypothetical is that the question hinges upon the qualifications of the appointee.

Yes, if Charlie Crist had outstanding credentials for a particular position, the fact that the appointment would leave a clear field for Rubio would not make such a hypothetical appointment unethical. No national interest is harmed, qualified persons are not passed over, it would simply be a smart political play -- on top of being "good government" to appoint a well-qualified individual.

You start with the qualifications, and then things become a little easier to sort through...ethics wise.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

A felony is a felony. A silly rationale is not a defense. All that matters is whether the felony was committed and by whom. Hypocritical spin signifies nothing. This is going to get good.

Posted by: WNGTIA | May 25, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

A felony is a felony. A silly rationale is not a defense. All that matters is whether the felony was committed and by whom. Hypocritical spin signifies nothing. This is going to get good.

Posted by: WNGTIA | May 25, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

A felony is a felony. A silly rationale is not a defense. All that matters is whether the felony was committed and by whom. Hypocritical spin signifies nothing. This is going to get good.

Posted by: WNGTIA | May 25, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

"...for the purpose of interfering with, or affecting..."


Again, it goes to the qualifications.

Exploring the possibility that a well-qualified individual might be interested in a particular position is simply good government, and making a showing that instead it is solely "for the purpose" of mainuplating the primary election is going to be a heavy lift.

I don't think that the administration would have even bothered to have explored that possibility after Sestak announced, but even if they did, I don't think Rahm or Obama or anybody else in the White House would be in violation of the law for an offer of a position for which the individual is clearly well-qualified, despite the fact that the White House might feel that the appointment also made Pennsylvania Democratic politics a little less messy.

If you guys want to think that Barack and Rahm are felons (or unethical), you may believe whatever you wish. I just don't see any cheese at the end of this tunnel.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I think your reasoning with respect to motive is fair, but my point is, if the offer was made after Aug. 4, the possibility exists that a crime was committed. If Justice investigated and concluded that yes, a crime was committed, then your reasoning would then become part of a defense. That said, It I consider all that extremely unlikely.

And with respect to WHEN the offer was made, well, Sestak took his sweet time, almost three months, to make it official. So I agree, any offer was most likely made before Aug. 4.

Posted by: andrewlong | May 25, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

"If Justice investigated and concluded that yes, a crime was committed, then your reasoning would then become part of a defense."

A big "if" there (on coming to such a conclusion), in large measure because of the reasons that I have offered (that you agree would become part of any defense).

And yes, Sestak publicly dangled the possibility of a run for months on end before actually declaring his candidacy, so logic suggests that any WH offer would have been discussed before he declared.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Following Mr. Matthews logic a little farther down the trail....I have a drivers license issued by a state agency which qualifies me to operate the motor vehicle that I took without the owners permission or knowledge; honestly, I am not breaking any laws because the state certified me qualified to operate the vehicle when it issued a license even though I stole the vehicle. Silly right? Mr. Sestak's qualification has nothing to do with the root issue, Federal Statute, that makes it illegal. Don't believe me, read 18 U.S.C. Section 600 for yourself. Put ethic back in politics by calling a crime what it is! Shame on you Mr. Matthews, and those like you, for lacking the moral courage to do so.

Posted by: Charikar | May 26, 2010 6:58 AM | Report abuse

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