As expected, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was peppered with a host of questions Thursday on new reports that the administration dangled a job offer to get Colorado Democratic Andrew Romanoff to leave the Senate race -- much in the way it did with Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Penn) in the Pennsylvania primary.
And while the he deftly stuck to the White House line on questions of legality -- no laws were broken, Gibbs stressed -- and made news by revealing that the president wasn't aware of the Romanoff offer, he ducked the matter of most concern to political ethicists.
What message does this practice send to the Democratic voters in Pennsylvania and Colorado who actually wanted a choice for their next senator?
"Obviously, in Pennsylvania we've had a primary," Gibbs said, when asked that question by the Huffington Post. "That's been done. The president is supportive of, as we said months ago, supportive of incumbent Senator Michael Bennet, somebody who has done groundbreaking work first as the superintendent and is involved in a whole host of things that the president is supportive of, particularly as it relates to ethics."
"Each individual state decides, I believe, how a vacancy is going to be filled and I'm not going to get into those 50 state decisions," he added.
This, for lack of a better description, doesn't make sense.
The question is not how each state fills an open Senate seat. It's about the notion of providing choices for primary voters.
In each case in which the administration dangled a job in front of a candidate, the senator it backed entered office without actually facing their party's voters. Specter had switched affiliations in the spring of 2009. Bennet had been appointed to the seat by Colorado's governor after then-Sen. Ken Salazar left for the post of Secretary of the Interior. Since neither incumbent had run in a primary race, it stood to reason that a fair chunk of those voters would want a competitive field -- not one that had been cleared out by the White House. The administration essentially dismissed that group of voters.
Talking to the Huffington Post on Thursday morning, President George W. Bush's ethics lawyer, Richard Painter, made much the same case. Defending the legality of the White House offering a job as a means of clearing up a contested primary, he nevertheless called the practice seedy.
"I think the Hatch Act is way too vague," Painter said. "If you apply it to a situation like this, it would be unprecedented... That said, I think in two respects I'm not impressed with [what the White House did]. One is that hiring decisions are over-politicized, as a matter of degree, and the more it goes on the less happy I am. But I think the more important thing is denying the voters a choice. The White House really ought to stay out of their own parties' primaries, I wish they would."
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