POLITICS
05/27/2010 01:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sestak Scandal Is Business As Usual, Say Historians -- Which May Be Obama's Problem

With Reporting By Julian Hattem

As the Republican Party works itself into a lather over the Obama administration's offer of a job to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Penn) in exchange for him not entering the Pennsylvania Senate primary, seasoned political observers, historians, and lawyers are responding with veritable yawns.

American presidential history is littered with quid pro quos, implicit and explicit secret job offers, and backroom deals, so much so that the Sestak offer may be more the norm than the exception to it.

"It is completely unexceptional," said Dr. Russell Riley, associate professor and chair of the Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia. "I read some place today that this is evidently illegal, which was shocking news to me. I don't know what the statutes are that would bear on this... it just doesn't seem to me to particularly rise to the level of being newsworthy in the first place and the fact that it's spun out into a scandal has been surprising."

George Edwards, a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University, says: "There is no question whatsoever that presidents have often offered people positions to encourage them not to do something or make it awkward for them to do it. Presidents have also offered people back-ups if they ran for an office and lost. All this is old news historically."

Historical context, however, often ends up on the back burner when it comes to the scandal de jour. And with the Obama-Sestak exchange the outrage, both faux and earnest, has proven at times deafening. The Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Darrell Issa (R-Cali.), is demanding the launch of an investigation. Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee have written a letter to the Justice Department calling for the same. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, on Wednesday night suggested the appointment of a special prosecutor. Conservative news outlets have been abuzz.

Even Democrats acknowledge that more information should be released, going by the logic that If nothing nefarious took place, then actually revealing that activity shouldn't be a problem. The quickest way to confirm that no criminal statutes were violated -- as the White House insists -- is to simply offer a more detailed explanation.

That said, the volume of attention that's been devoted to this episode seems devoid of context. After all, the Obama administration made a similar overture early in office without so much as a peep. When the president offered Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) the post of Commerce Secretary it was under an "agreement" (Gregg's word) that the governor of New Hampshire would appoint a replacement who caucuses with Republicans. Issa's office actually admitted that this deal was as bad as the Sestak exchange to Salon.com on Wednesday night. But no calls for an investigation have transpired.

There are countless other examples as well. Governor Ed Rendell told The Hill that he basically did the same thing when he promised to help out former Rep. Joe Hoeffel if he dropped his primary bid for Senate against Bob Casey in 2006.

The progressive watchdog group Media Matters, meanwhile, pointed out that President Reagan offered California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa a job in his administration if he dropped out of the Senate primary race in California -- an offer that Hayakawa, like Sestak, rejected.

The offers aren't always so explicit. But by today's standards, they could still very well rise to scandal level. Joel Goldstein, professor of law at St. Louis University who has written extensively about the office of the president, noted that in 1976 then-governor Ronald Reagan essentially told Sen, Richard Schweiker that if he supported his primary campaign against Gerald Ford, he'd make him his running mate. Franklin D. Roosevelt, likewise, dangled the vice presidency to John Nance Garner in exchange for Texas's support. Dwight Eisenhower essentially promised Earl Warren a seat on the Supreme Court in exchange for helping secure Republican delegates in California (and to get him out of electoral politics).

Back in 2003, it was speculated that President George W. Bush offered a job at the United Nations to Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) so that he wouldn't run for re-election in a district that had been redrawn following redistricting. Gillman told the Huffington Post that there was "no offer of that nature," merely talks with then-Governor Pataki about the need to consolidate the state's congressional representation. And while he thinks it is "appropriate" for the Ethics Committee to investigate the Sestak offer, Gillman did acknowledge that there have been "other cases of that nature."

Indeed, the trend begins early in U.S. history. As Riley notes, President James Monroe "briefly considered making Andrew Jackson the U.S. ambassador to Russia, for purposes of getting him out of the country and deflating any growing Jackson-for-president movement. (Thomas Jefferson objected: "Why, good God, he would breed you a quarrel before he'd been there a month!")"

"Using appointed political offices to shape electoral politics has a long provenance," Riley concluded.

Even Richard Painter, a lawyer in the Bush administration, wrote on Thursday that: "The allegation that the job offer was somehow a "bribe" in return for Sestak not running in the primary is difficult to support" in part because it is "nothing new."

So why would the White House cooperate with its critics at all? After all, David Corn, writing for Mother Jones, reported that several ethics lawyers (including Republicans) saw nothing untoward with the president's offer to Sestak. One anonymous lawyer called Issa's argument "crap."

And yet, even the president's defenders are making a compelling case that more transparency is needed. For starters, as one top strategist notes, the storyline is "suffocating" the Sestak campaign at a time when it should be reaping the benefits of its primary victory and talking (exclusively) about jobs. Mainly, however, the problem is one of perception. A back-room job offer may be, in the end, business as usual. But that doesn't provide solace or defense for a president who promised to change the way that Washington works.

"Tell me a White House that didn't do this, back to George Washington," longtime GOP strategist Ron Kaufman told the New York Times. "But here's the difference -- the times have changed and the ethics have changed and the scrutiny has changed. This is the kind of thing people across America are mad about."