Sunday, June 6, 2010

Meddling in our Primary Elections

Ever since Congressman Joe Sestak scored his stunning upset over long time incumbent Senator Arlen Specter in the recent Pennsylvania Democratic primary election, many questions have been raised over what kind of job was offered to Mr. Sestak by the Obama administration to get him not to run against Specter.

Perhaps just to inflict a little zinger on the Obama administration for supporting his opponent, Sestak did admit in interviews that he was offered a job but has declined to provide any more details.

Since then the Obama administration has taken a
"trust us" position in response to repeated questioning on this matter.

“Lawyers in the White House and others have looked into conversations that were had with Congressman Sestak,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “And nothing inappropriate happened.”

“Improper or not, did you offer him a job in the administration?” asked the host, Bob Schieffer.

“I’m not going to get further into what the conversations were,” Mr. Gibbs replied. “People that have looked into them assure me that they weren’t inappropriate in any way.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the “trust us” response from the White House has not exactly put the matter to rest. With Mr. Sestak’s victory over Mr. Specter in last week’s primary, the questions have returned with intensity, only to remain unanswered. Mr. Gibbs deflected questions 13 times at a White House briefing last week just two days after the primary. Mr. Sestak, a retired admiral, has reaffirmed his assertion without providing any details, like who exactly offered what job.

Chances are that the job offer was done carefully and vaguely enough to avoid any problems with the law. But the continued evasion of questions by Obama’s press secretary coupled with the refusal of Obama himself to take questions in a news conference have left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. It is telling that the collection of New York Times Readers' Comments to this article were about as uniformly negative towards Obama as any I've ever seen from this mostly liberal readership.

But even if the job offer was not illegal, did it do a disservice to the Democratic voters in Pennsylvania?

A NYT editorial
Unintelligent Design takes a very blasé view of it all.

There doesn’t seem to be anything terribly unethical about the White House offer of an unpaid advisory position to Joe Sestak if he would bow out of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, in which he later defeated Senator Arlen Specter.

Meddling in Congressional races is an expected and even an important part of any White House political operation, even those that claim to be different from their predecessors. If Mr. Obama had meddled a little earlier and more intensively in the United States Senate race in Massachusetts earlier this year, he might have been able to prevent the election of a Republican, Scott Brown, to the seat long held by Edward Kennedy.
What the editorial writers failed to mention was that the above example is about a general election. A Democratic administration supporting a Democratic candidate running against a Republican candidate makes perfect sense. But a Democratic administration “meddling” in a primary election within its own party raises serious concerns.

Contested primary elections exist for a good reason. Without them, the candidates to choose from in the general elections would be little more than those who were handpicked by political bosses in those proverbial smoke-filled backrooms.

The results of the primary election of course proved that the Pennsylvania Democratic voters preferred Joe Sestak over Arlen Specter on their ballot in November. But if the Obama administration had been successful in preventing Sestak from running, the voters would have never had this choice!

Shortly after Arlen Specter announced his switch to the Democratic Party, he made it a point to stress that he would not be an automatic 60th vote for the Senate Democrats. But after having said that, he has fully cooperated with the Democrats on every crucial vote since then. Having primary opposition in the form of Sestak most certainly had something to do with that.

Now more recently, we have another
story about the Obama administration meddling in another primary election.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs faced fresh questions about another backroom political deal - the first involving a Pennsylvania candidate, now a Colorado hopeful - that put the Obama administration on the defensive. The White House acknowledged that it had contacted former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff about possible jobs in hopes of persuading him to skip the Senate primary.

One can’t help but wonder how many other deals like these have taken place.

Gibbs defended the White House's involvement in primaries as Democrats struggle to maintain their majorities in the House and Senate in a tough political environment.

"I think the leaders of parties have long had an interest in ensuring that supporters didn't run against each other in contested elections," Gibbs said.

What this really means is that the party leaders are much more interested in preserving the jobs of their incumbents than providing real choice for the voters. This is especially bad in a political system where in the US, the two major parties exert so much control over the election process.

Choice is an absolutely vital part of free and fair elections. If the Obama administration wants to put its political muscle into backing a particular party candidate, that’s bad enough. But to try and actually take voters’ choices away by eliminating primary candidates seriously undermines the democratic process. Instead of just dismissing this as politics as usual, we should be outraged!

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