Tough old bird



Anyone still needing proof that Arlen Specter is a tough old bird would be well advised to check out his canny response to the long-simmering controversy that threatens to embroil his chief political antagonist.

For those readers who are not Pennsylvania-centric, some back story is required. Specter, the 80-year-old Pennsylvania senator and serial political survivor who switched parties last spring so that he could run for re-election this year as a Democrat, has been buoyed in his efforts by every major player in the Democratic establishment, from Barack Obama to Ed Rendell - much to the annoyance of congressman Joe Sestak, the retired Navy admiral, who is defying the party establishment by challenging Specter in the May 18 Democratic primary.

Sestak, in his underdog bid for the liberal primary voters, continues to insist that he is a real Democrat, unlike Specter the chameleon. Sestak has taken several shots at the Democratic bigwigs who tried to give Specter a primary-free path to the nomination - but his loudest volley came three weeks ago, when he claimed on a Comcast public affairs TV show that the Obama team had tried to coax him out of the race last July by offering him a federal job.

Host Larry Kane raised the issue in the first place, asking whether such a job had been pitched. Sestak replied, "Yes," but refused to provide any details. The White House quickly denied the claim without providing any details. Then Sestak went on Fox News and repeated his claim that the White House had made such an offer - but again he refused to get specific, insisting that "there's nothing more to go into." Then he told The Washington Post: "There has been some indirect means in which they were trying to offer things if I got out."

That's what happened in February. But the job offer claim resurfaced on MSNBC earlier this week, when host Joe Scarborough asked Sestak about it. Sestak told Scarborough: "Something happened last July, before I (officially) got into the race, and I never got asked about it. All of a sudden (on Comcast), somebody asked me. And, you know, I answered it honestly. I just said 'yes.' But I didn't go beyond that. And, actually, I don't think I should."

I have several thoughts about this story, which, to quote Alice in Wonderland, seems to get "curiouser and curiouser." For starters, Sestak's claim is potentially serious, because federal law, 18 USC 211, appears to prohibit the awarding of "any appointive office" in exchange for a political favor. The language is typically murky (at least to a layman), but a smart lawyer could make the case that Sestak - knowingly or not - has been suggesting that the Democratic White House may have committed a crime. (A similar story surfaced in Colorado last September, when the Denver press, citing "several sources," reported that a top Obama deputy had suggested possible federal jobs to Andrew Romanoff, a Colorado Democrat who was challenging incumbent Democratic senator Michael Bennet. Romanoff - unlike Sestak - has refused to comment.)

Granted, even if the White House did dangle such a goody in front of Sestak, a breach of law would be tough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, given the slippery nature of quid pro quos. But it's worth noting that the White House has continued to stonewall this story; two days ago, when press secretary Robert Gibbs was again asked about it, he parried: "I don't have the update with me, but let me check and see if I do have anything." Translation: "No comment."

Which brings us Specter. Late Tuesday, he surfaced on a different MSNBC show, where he weighed in on Sestak's renewed claim:

"There have been a number of commentators who picked up on what Congressman Sestak has said, and have identified it as a bribe punishable by jail, and that’s a pretty strong charge to make against the president’s administration, implying perhaps even the president himself. So I think that if someone is going to make a charge, he ought to stand up and name names, name dates and back it up and not just make a charge. He gets a lot of political mileage out of that, pretty inexpensively...

"There is a specific federal statute which makes it a bribe to make an offer for a public office - and when I was a district attorney, if somebody came and told me that, I would say, 'name names, name dates, name places.' That’s a very very serious charge, it’s a big black smear without the specifications. But I’m telling you it is a federal crime punishable by jail, and anybody who wants to say that ought to back it up. Listen, Congressman Sestak has gotten a lot of political mileage out of that, and it’s really an attack on the administration."

Specter may be a shape-shifter of the first rank (as I have written before), but those comments were tactically brilliant, further evidence of his undiminished competitive fervor. In just a few sentences, he managed to (a) put Sestak's claim in a serious legal context (b) point out, accurately, that "a number of commentators" have also spotted the legal context, (c) remind people that he was once a district attorney whose job was to fight crime, (d) challenge his opponent to either put up or shut up, and (e) defend the Obama White House.

Politically, (e) was most important. In his pitch for Democratic votes in a primary that is open only to Democratic voters, Specter needs to exhibit the requisite amount of party loyalty. So here he was, sticking up for a Democratic White House, defending its virtue in the face of "a big black smear without the specifications."

And, politically, one has to wonder whether Sestak can benefit from his job offer claim. Notwithstanding Democratic primary voters' frustrations with Obama, will they cheer Sestak for possibly exposing a Democratic White House to legal trouble - or, at minimum, to the indignities of a "big black smear?" Indeed, a high-ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, inspired by Sestak's claim, has decided to stir the pot by demanding this week that the White House release details of its past communications with Sestak.

And now Specter has positioned himself to defend the Obama team and act as a loyal Democrat. There's a reason why the tough old bird is so tough to beat.