Bill Clinton and Sestak: How Obama Fuels a Feeding Frenzy

The GOP gripes about Bill Clinton’s role in the Pennsylvania primary are nonsense. But by misplaying the matter, Joe Sestak and President Obama are needlessly fueling a feeding frenzy.

Bill Clinton & Joe Sestak (Getty Images; AP Photo)

Why in the world did he go blabbing about it? What did he possibly think he had to gain? That's the real mystery in this increasingly crazy case of the "job" offered to Rep. Joe Sestak by Bill Clinton on behalf of Barack Obama in return for agreeing to forgo his challenge to Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Senate primary. During a radio appearance in February, Sestak told host Larry Kane that he'd been offered a position. "I'm not going to say who or how and what was offered," Sestak said in a later interview. "I don't feel it's appropriate to go beyond what I said."

OK, there are a few other mysteries as well. What was the "job," for instance? And was it really a job, or just a fancy, important-sounding title with nothing much to do except set the guy up in the future? The White House has admitted that, at the behest of Rahm Emanuel, Clinton did inquire as to whether "Sestak would be interested in service on Presidential or other Senior Executive Branch Advisory Board." Whatever that means, the White House insists that it does not mean the job of Secretary of the Navy.

Obama's White House, in refusing to give a straight answer about what went down and admit whatever it was that it did, is looking disingenuous and losing control of the discourse.

Second, was the offer in the form of an explicit quid pro quo? I doubt this. I was recruited by the CIA once, or I might have been. I'm not sure. Because the CIA knows how to make offers that are understood but deniable. (I imagine Bill Clinton has learned how to do this, too.)

And third, did the White House actually investigate this? I would not be surprised if they didn't. This is after all, politics. Politicians have been known to trade favors to get what they want from one another. White House Counsel Bob Bauer said he looked into it and found that "allegations of improper conduct rest on factual errors and lack a basis in the law."

"The law," you say? Is someone going to arrest Clinton or Emanuel or even Obama for doing this, assuming they did it? Well, it turns out there is a law: "18 USC 600," which makes it illegal "to offer employment, position, compensation, or other benefit made possible by an Act of Congress in exchange for 'political activity,' including support for or opposition to a candidate, including in a primary election," as Columbia Law professor Richard Briffault explained to The Daily Caller.

Thing is, this is not the kind of law to which anyone has ever paid any attention before. And a good thing, too, as nobody would ever get a job. Has anyone noticed that Hillary Clinton stopped saying mean things about Barack Obama and is no longer a threat to his presidency since he appointed her secretary of State? Was that illegal? What about his choice of ex-Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who looked like a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, to be his ambassador to China? Slammer time for that, too? And remember when the Obama administration was in talks with Republican Judd Gregg to make him secretary of Commerce? He was on again, off again, etc., but there was clearly a deal in place.

As Politico put it, "And Tuesday's White House announcement is expected to be accompanied by one by New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch that will ensure that Gregg's seat won't switch to the Democrats before the 2010 elections." Yet another crime? Of course not. All presidents, indeed, pretty much all governors and probably mayors and even a few dog catchers do this kind of thing. The word "horse-trading" in politics is not meant to be understood literally after all. (Media Matters, for instance, has pointed out that, in almost a perfectly analogous situation, Ronald Reagan offered California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa an administration position if he agreed to withdraw from a Senate primary, just like Sestak. And like Sestak, he said "no thanks.")

So now what? Well, it appears to be time for yet another Fox/RNC/talk radio-driven shitstorm. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa has called for Attorney General Eric Holder to launch an independent investigation. Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey wants a special prosecutor. On Fox, Steve Doocy, Dick Morris, and Sean Hannity have all been crowing that whatever happened, it looks like an "impeachable offense." (Issa has also endorsed this view.)

Will Barack Obama be impeached and Bill Clinton carted off? We doubt it. Will there be an actual Ken Starr-like investigation? We doubt that, too. Will anyone who is not already a devotee of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or convinced that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born devotee of the Prophet Muhammad give this incident more a moment's thought? Perhaps not, but that hardly makes it meaningless.

Sestak, who enjoys a tiny lead over his opponent, conservative congressman Pat Toomey, is making news for all the wrong reasons, and will spend crucial campaign days dodging questions about just what went on. Obama's White House, meanwhile, in refusing to give a straight answer about what went down and admit whatever it was that it did, is looking disingenuous and losing control of the discourse. (It's true nobody was really shocked that there was gambling going on in the back room at Rick's, but the arrests went through nevertheless.) But perhaps most important, the White House and Democrats need to see this incident as a wakeup call. Should they lose both houses in 2010 and with them, control of the relevant investigative committees, they will spend the next two years doing little else besides fighting these phony wars, just as the Clinton administration did in its final two. Before 1998, remember, presidents did what they wanted in the privacy of their own outer-offices and nobody ever thought of trying to impeach anybody for a little lovin' on the side. They need to put this incident behind them and get back to stuff that actually matters to people... and therefore wins elections.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.