An impossible standard to meet

AN IMPOSSIBLE STANDARD TO MEET…. When it comes to the Sestak and Romanoff “stories,” some on the right and in the media have shifted gears a bit. Instead of arguing that intervention in primaries is illegal and/or unethical — it’s obviously neither — they’re left to argue that it’s “politics as usual.” And that’s bad.

As the argument goes, President Obama, though he never promised to avoid helping incumbent candidates in his own party, was supposed to “change” politics. Matthew Dowd complained on ABC recently that he expected Obama not to “politicize things.”

In this case, “things” is in reference to “elections.” Dowd, in effect, argued in all seriousness that the White House brought politics into an election, and “that’s a problem” for the president’s “brand.”

It’s an exceedingly odd standard to apply to a president. By this reasoning, if the president does something that all other presidents have done, it’s necessarily a mistake — because it’s not “change.” Marc Ambinder quoted an amusing, tongue-in-cheek example from Rutgers’ David Greenberg:

It is discovered that Obama headlined a fundraiser for a Democratic congressional candidate. The GOP cries foul. The press quotes experts saying that while many other presidents have done the exact same thing, Obama promised us something other than business as usual….

That’s funny, of course, but it’s reaching the point at which I can almost expect it to happen. It no longer seems farfetched to me to think the president will endorse a candidate later this year, and Republicans will say, “Obama doesn’t trust voters to make up their own minds, so he’s abusing his power by telling them how to vote. Since when is America a dictatorship where Dear Leader thinks he knows better than the rest of us? Why is the executive branch interfering with legislative matters anyway? This Chicago-style endorsement may violate the separation of powers.”

The media will deem the endorsement “controversial,” because all complaints raised by Republicans, by definition, generate “controversies.” The White House will note that every president has endorsed favored candidates, which will invariably lead Republicans and political reporters to say, “Exactly. It’s politics as usual. Obama was supposed to change things. He can’t be different if he’s playing by the same old rules.”

I realize how fanciful this sounds, and how unlikely it seems. But remember, for weeks now, the political establishment has taken possible administration job opportunities for Senate candidates seriously. The Washington Post editorial board complained bitterly today about White House intentions it described as “not unusual” and mild campaign tactics the editors conceded weren’t illegal.

Ambinder takes major media outlets to task quite effectively:

More potentially pernicious than liberal bias, than the false equivalences bias, than really just about any other bias that journalism that inject into a public discussion of a story is the power that comes from merely selecting which subjects to cover. Whatever the collection of facts about White House officials attempting to influence primary elections is, it is not a scandal. It is not the type of story that journalists with credibility and experience should be selecting to cover. It’s the type of story that journalists ought to resist covering, precisely because the act of giving it attention elevates the arguments that don’t correspond with the truth. If journalism is good for anything, it is to provide what Republican Bruce Bartlett calls “quality control” over the narrative. Well, a big mess just slipped by.

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.

And yet, it will continue, because irresponsible journalists seem to know no other way.