President Richard Nixon uttered one of the most infamous quotes in U.S. political history on April 6, 1977, defiantly declaring, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
This sentiment embodies all that is wrong with politics. It explains why, more than 30 years later, the political establishment struggles with the image that Nixon’s misguided statement creates.
Since February, questions have swirled around allegations first made by Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.). He is now the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, but he said that someone inside the Obama White House had offered him a job in exchange for dropping out of the primary against Arlen Specter.
Title 18 U.S.C. Section 600 clearly says: “Whoever directly or indirectly promises any employment position, compensation, contract, appointment or other benefit provided for or made possible in whole or in part by any Act of Congress, or any special consideration in obtaining any such benefit, to any person as consideration, in favor or reward for any political activity or for the support of or opposition to any candidate or any political party in connection with any general or special election to any political office … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
Aside from the obvious legal issues that offering someone what amounts to a bribe in an effort to manipulate an election could present, there is a broader and symbolic issue at heart.
After winning the South Carolina Democratic primary, then-candidate Barack Obama proclaimed: “We’re looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington.
“It’s a status quo that extends beyond any particular party, and right now that status quo is fighting back with everything it’s got, with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face … that’s the kind of politics that is bad for our party, it is bad for our country and this is our chance to end it once and for all. … We’re up against the idea that it’s acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election.”
Flash-forward. Sestak has said, without equivocation and on numerous occasions on network TV, that he was offered a job. The White House, after refusing to answer questions about the matter for weeks, finally relented and, through press secretary Robert Gibbs and senior adviser David Axelrod, said that, according to their administration lawyers, nothing “problematic” or “inappropriate” had occurred.
Mind you, they didn’t deny Sestak’s allegation. They spoke to the potential illegality of his claim.
But given the movement that swept Obama into office and the assault on the status quo he promised, doesn’t this implication and the White House’s refusal to deny Sestak’s account equate to a betrayal of the standards set by the president himself?
For weeks, this issue has been the topic on Sunday shows and cable programs. The one thing that I’ve heard to justify what may or may not have happened is the rationale, “this sort of thing happens all the time.”
Is there any wonder why the people of this nation are screaming for change and establishment candidates are losing — regardless of whether they have a “D” or an “R” next to their name?
Maybe if we held people accountable, this status quo of trading positions for political gain wouldn’t be so easily accepted by the Washington establishment. Maybe if politicians lived up to their promises of transparency and change, the American people’s faith in their elected representatives wouldn’t be so easily shaken.
Obama led a movement that shook the very foundation of Washington. He stood on the cusp of an unparalleled moment of opportunity to transform the politics of greed and opportunism, to usher in a new era of cooperation, transparency and fundamental change. He assailed against those who would “say anything and do anything to win an election.”
Yet, from inside his White House, someone thought it was OK to try to maneuver Sestak out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary — effectively betraying the promises that candidate Obama made.
Gibbs and Axelrod say nothing “inappropriate” or “problematic” happened. But they have yet to disclose what was said and by whom. Even if no laws were broken, Obama’s pledge to change the status quo has been.
But don’t worry, this sort of thing happens all the time.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) serves as ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.