When Ignorance Is An Excuse

The whole discussion of the alleged bribe attempt when the Obama administration tried to buy off Congressman Joe Sestak from running against Senator Arlen “dead man walking” Specter has brought up some fascinating points. One of the most informative ones has been the observation (first noted, I believe, here) was that Obama could not have appointed him Secretary of the Navy.

The first reason is a potential conflict: the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, had previously been Chief of Naval Operations (essentially, the Navy’s commander in chief). While in that job, Mullen essentially “fired” Sestak and ended his naval career. According to Wikipedia:

In the summer of 2005, Sestak was administratively reassigned from his position as DCNO effectively ending his naval career.[13] His removal was one of the first changes made by Admiral Michael Mullen when he took over as the new Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in July, 2005, according to Navy Times.

As Secretary of the Navy, Sestak would have been directly superior to Mullen — something neither man, I suspect, would have tolerated.

More significantly, though, is the law establishing the role of Secretary of the Navy. One of the restrictions on the office holder is that they can not have been a member of the armed services in the past five years. Sestak’s retirement was in July of 2005, which means he wouldn’t even be eligible for the job for another month from today at the soonest. And the current Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, has held the job since last June, with no real controversy indicating that he’s doing a less than acceptable job.

Now, those are very, very good reasons why Sestak could not serve as Secretary of the Navy. But they don’t really don’t cover whether or not he might have been offered the position anyway. There are two explanations that would cover that.

The first is ignorance. The law governing the SecNav (sorry for the insider slang there, but I don’t feel like typing eighteen letters when six will suffice) is not exactly common knowledge, like the rules governing eligibility for the presidency. Nor, for that matter, the acrimonious past between Sestak and Mullen. The decision to try to buy off Sestak would not have been a topic for discussion among a lot of Obama insiders, and it’s entirely possible that none of the parties involved were aware of either complication. It’s entirely plausible that the discussion didn’t go into more detail than “hey, Sestak was an admiral; let’s offer him the SecNav job. He’d probably go for that.”

The other one is a bit more Machiavellian. It presumes that the people who authorized the offer knew full well that Sestak was not eligible to accept it, but made the offer anyway. To them, it could end up a no-lose scenario, no matter how it plays out:

  • Sestak knows about the law, and informs them that he can’t accept it. They get credit for making the offer.
  • Sestak doesn’t know about the law, but declines because of his past with Mullen. Again, they get credit for the offer.
  • Sestak doesn’t know about the law, but accepts it despite his past with Mullen. Later, after Sestak drops out of challenging Specter, they “discover” the law, apologize, and offer him a lesser job as a sop.

The only result that doesn’t work out well for them is the one that actually happened: Sestak states publicly that they tried to buy him off with an unnamed “position,” and some very sharp people note that the move appears to violate several federal corruption laws.

And yes, one of these “very sharp people” would be Karl Rove. No, I’m not using him as an expert on ethics here, but on ethics laws. And considering how he spent eight years successfully dodging some extremely dedicated and passionate enemies seeking to hang him for breaking the slightest law, it’s clear that the guy is an expert on what exactly those laws are and what they say. So when he goes on TV and cites specific statutes involved (18 USC 600, 18 USC 211, and 18 USC 595), it’s quite handy to check his references and see that he seems to know what he’s talking about.

Of the two explanations, I find the former more plausible. “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity” is a good rule of thumb, and the Obama administration has struck me as more inept than sinister. I just don’t think they are sharp enough to come up with the scheme outlined above.

Right now, we’re seeing some really, really interesting spin. The Obama administration has decided to get Bill Clinton into the mud pit with them, and are saying that the “position” Sestak was being considered for was an unpaid intelligence advisory board. If these people were swift enough to come up with a plot like I discussed above, they’d have come up with a better story a lot faster.

In the meantime, this will continue to play out. And a lot of us will be watching this quite carefully. The initial attempt to buy off Sestak was a pretty trivial offense, but so was the Watergate break-in. That led us to the political truism that “it’s not the crime, but the coverup.”

Will the Obama administration go too far in their attempt to minimize and downplay the whole mess, and dig themselves in so deep as to cause serious problems? I don’t know. But I do think they are arrogant enough to think they can do it and get away with it.

They’ve proven that time and time again.

Peggy Noonan nails it: "He Was Supposed To Be Competent"
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