Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On Sestak and Romanoff

Marc Ambinder has written a thoughtful post on why the White House did nothing wrong in trying to prevent, unsuccessfully, Joe Sestak from running against Alan Specter in Pennsylvania and Andrew Romanoff from running against Michael Bennett Colorado.  Ambinder's post is generally persuasive, but I think he and many other commentators have failed to struggle with an important point.  Ambinder concludes:
Where the White House erred is obvious. In claiming to hold themselves to an ethereal, fairly impossible ethical standard, they are partly responsible for the casual criminalization of regular political discourse. In some ways, this White House has been more transparent and more committed to generally accepted ethical practices. Although Obama never promised to abstain from politics, he invited some of this scrutiny by refusing to delineate what he found acceptable and what he did not.  But this is a venial sin compared to the transgressions of organized journalism.
I think this misses the point.  The issue here is not that the administration promised ethical behavior but behaved otherwise.  I am not troubled by the fact that the Administration cannot live up to all of its own standards.  That in and of itself is no reason for condemnation.  Before condemning we should ask why was was it that the Administration failed to live up to its own standards.  Some violations will be problematic others will be understandable in light of new information, changed circumstances, different perspectives, or the foolishness of an Administration in setting too high of a bar, etc.

What does trouble me is that the Administration attempted to deny Democrats in at least two different states, the opportunity to choose their own representatives.  The key question here is whether one takes elections seriously as an important mechanism for effectuating self-government.  Elections are not the only mechanism, but they are certainly critical.

The White House's response is that the Administration "has every right to try to avert expensive and divisive intraparty primaries between Democrats, something it did by encouraging potential candidates to consider other options, including government jobs or appointments."  The problem with that response is that it proves too much.  Under that theory, we might as well get rid of all primaries and let the President pick all of our nominees.  All primaries are expensive and all of them are divisive.  But democracy is also expensive and divisive.  It is not without costs. It might be easier and less expensive if we disposed of elections all together and abided by the wishes of dictator, but we would not be a self-governing people.

As I understand the facts of the Sestak and Romanoff cases, I don't think the Administration crossed an ethical line (I certainly don't think they violated relevant legal statutes).  But I don't think that these cases are insignificant and the creation of the media-machine.  We should always be skeptical whenever political elites arrogate the power to choose our representatives because they think they know best.  

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