The patronage president

Mark Impomeni Contributor
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With his signature health care plan—and perhaps his presidency— breaking on the shoals of an electorally challenged Democratic Congress, President Obama hosted a group of 10 wayward Democrats at the White House last week. But the biggest news to come out of the meeting was not any promised vote switches on health care among the president’s guests, but an ordinarily routine judicial appointment. That was because the administration chose to announce on the same day the nomination of Scott Matheson for a federal judgeship on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Matheson is the brother of Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who just happens to be one of the 10 Democrats the president was wooing on health care at the meeting.

The timing of the announcement is curious to say the least, although White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed suggestions that the nomination was made in an effort to sway Matheson’s congressman brother as, “silly.” Gibbs might be a bit more believable but for the fact that two Democrats running for the Senate have publicly accused the White House of offering them federal jobs to drop out of their respective races.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) recently volunteered to an interviewer that an unnamed White House official offered him a “high-ranking” post in the administration if he would bow out of his primary challenge of White House favorite Sen. Arlen Specter. Pressed for the name of the official and the job he was offered, Sestak refused to provide details. However, speculation is that Sestak, a retired admiral, was promised that he would be named Secretary of the Navy if he complied.

Meanwhile, the former Speaker of the Colorado House, Andrew Romanoff, said that he too was offered a position in the Administration—in former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar’s Interior Department—if he were to play ball and drop his primary challenge of incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet. Unlike Sestak, Romanoff provided the name of the official that allegedly approached him, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina. To their credit, both Sestak and Romanoff rebuffed the administration’s advances.

The White House has been stonewalling the relatively few press inquiries that have come in about Sestak’s and Romanoff’s charges. Asked about the charges at a White House press briefing last week, Gibbs pleaded ignorance of the matter—not altogether unbelievable— but stopped short of flatly denying the charges, promising to respond at a later date. To date, however, that response has not been forthcoming.

It is highly unlikely that both Sestak and Romanoff were mistaken or somehow misinterpreted their separate conversations with White House officials. It is equally unlikely that they would have made up the charges in an effort to boost their credentials as independent actors with the electorate. Both men want to have friends in the White House should they be elected to the Senate. Rather, Gibbs’ apparent inability or unwillingness to provide an answer speaks to the likely truth of the charges.

If once is an anomaly, and twice is a coincidence, then three times establishes a pattern. The Sestak and Romanoff affairs make it clear that the nomination of Rep. Matheson’s brother to the bench is just the latest instance of a cynical White House strategy to use its control of the federal bureaucracy to influence its friends and buy off its opponents.

Federal law makes it a crime to offer or solicit an appointment to a federal job in return for a political act; be it a decision on whether to run for office or a vote on a controversial piece of legislation. The law sets out a penalty of up to a year in prison and a fine or both for violation of the provision. But far from discouraging this kind of crass political patronage, President Obama is reportedly set to reward Messina by naming him the campaign manager of his re-election effort in 2012.

Republicans have been even less curious than the press about Sestak’s and Romanoff’s allegations. But the Matheson nomination could change that. Passage of Obama’s health care bill in the House and the accompanying reconciliation package in the Senate could hinge on the vote of a single member in either chamber. If the legal questions about the offers to Sestak and Romanoff didn’t arouse suspicions, the political ramifications of the Matheson nomination almost surely will.

The president who campaigned as the practitioner of a new kind of politics may have sealed the fate of his most important domestic policy initiative with one ill-timed application of Washington politics-as-usual.

Mark Impomeni is a conservative opinion writer, blogger, and contributing editor at RedState.com.