Republicans Think Sestakgate Could Hurt Obama. Are They Right?

Watergate. Contragate. Monicagate. Troopergate. And now ... Sestakgate?

For the past few days, Republicans have been buzzing about Joe Sestak's claim—now a few months old—that the Obama administration offered him a job in D.C. in exchange for dropping out of the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania and (theoretically) letting establishment pick Arlen Specter cruise unopposed to victory. (Of course, Sestak refused, which is why he's now the nominee.)

Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has repeatedly insisted that nothing "inappropriate" occurred, but beyond that, he's been tightlipped and evasive. So Republicans started to get suspicious. To date, their thinking has gone something like this: either Sestak is lying, in which case he's unworthy of office, or it's Gibbs who's the fibber, in which case "somebody inside the White House committed a felony," as Karl Rove recently put it. A win-win for the GOP, in other words.

Until now, these accusations have circulated mostly on conservative blogs. But they finally hit the mainstream this afternoon when Fox News's Major Garrett confronted Obama about the Sestak controversy near the end of the president's press conference.

Obama's reply? That "nothing improper took place" and that there would be "an official response shortly ... which I hope will answer your questions."

In non-Beltway speak, this probably means that White House counsel has been combing over who said what to whom and trying to suss out if any laws were broken in the process--and that lawyers have informed both Gibbs and Obama that the final report won't recommend sending anyone to jail.

Of course, Republicans won't be pleased if both Sestak and Obama are "let off the hook." Earlier this week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) claimed in an e-mail entitled "The Sestak Affair—Obama's Watergate?" that the aforementioned allegations "would amount to three felony charges of bribery and corruption."

"This may be the way business is done in Chicago, but it's not the way things are done in our nation's capitol [sic] and I am intent on getting to the bottom of this," Issa continued. "If [Sestak is] telling the truth, an investigation must take place and justice must be served." Issa didn't mention impeachment, but it wasn't hard to see what he was getting at.

The only problem for Republicans is that there's no real reason to believe that the White House broke any laws. As Jon Chait points out:

There's no such thing as offering somebody a job in return for them dropping out of a Senate race. The acceptance of a job means dropping out of a Senate race. The concept of offering somebody a job "in exchange" for them declining to seek another job is like offering to marry a woman in exchange for her not marrying some other guy. It's conceptually nonsensical.

In other words, you can't assume that offering Sestak a job was illegal unless you believe that offering a candidate a job is always illegal. If the candidate accepts, he has to drop out of the race. To prove that bribery took place, someone would have to show that Obama offered Sestak the gig solely because he wanted Sestak to bow out and not because he actually, you know, wanted Sestak to work in the White House. So unless Sestak was wearing a wire that caught administration officials saying some very stupid things, I doubt anyone will be able to make legal hay out of this.

Still, the law is only one factor here. Politics is another. Even though (as Sam Stein notes) "American presidential history is littered with quid pro quos, implicit and explicit secret job offers, and backroom deals"—including Ronald Reagan's decision to offer California Sen. S. I. Hayakawa a White House job if he quit the Senate primary race in California—Obama has styled himself as someone who's above politics as usual. He probably doesn't want to risk tarnishing his image by allowing the public to perceive the whole Sestak scrape as a sordid (if not technically illegal) affair. So here's hoping that when the administration finally does deliver some sort of "response," it's a lot clearer than what Gibbs & Co. have given us so far.

If not, Sestakgate might actually start to live up to its suffix.