Much of political wisdom consists simply of understanding and acknowledging which subjects and practices are off limits.
Yes, I know, to some people the very term “political wisdom” is a contradiction. To them, true wisdom rejects compromise and insists on clarity and discipline. But those who understand that the American system of governing a free society involves finding practical approaches to complex problems also understand that the “good until” date applies to politics.
As it happens, both parties tested that proposition last week — to their detriment: The Democrats by the kerfuffle over the reported effort by the White House to offer Rep. Joe Sestak a prominent federal job so he would drop out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary. And the Republicans by the controversial comments of Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul.
Sestak, a two-term congressman from western Pennsylvania who embellished his populist, maverick credentials in what had seemed an uphill challenge to 30-year veteran but party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter, announced that someone close to the president had tried to lure him to drop his challenge and instead accept a “high-level” job in the administration.
Both the president’s press secretary and his chief political adviser replied that they had been assured “nothing improper happened.” Their denial was not convincing, given the circumstances.
When Specter, looking at likely defeat in this year’s Republican primary, bolted to the Democrats and offered his support to Barack Obama’s economic legislation, the president welcomed him as the temporary guarantee of a filibuster-proof majority and offered him unconditional support in the Senate race — to no avail.
Obama had cut his political teeth in Chicago, where the Democratic Party had held formal “slating” sessions at which the elder Mayor Richard Daley and his colleagues decided who was worthy of machine backing for jobs large and small. Sixty-two years ago, in 1948, Jake Arvey, Daley’s political partner and kingmaker, bragged that in a year of duress for the Democrats, he had launched both Adlai Stevenson’s and Paul Douglas’ political careers by “slating” them for governor and senator on a blue-ribbon ticket.
But Daley’s son, the current Mayor Richard M. Daley, has recognized that times have changed, even in Chicago, and in a system dominated by primaries, voters want to choose candidates for themselves.
Apparently, some operatives at the White House didn’t get the memo, and so the president’s spokesmen found themselves implicitly asserting that the party nominee in the Pennsylvania Senate race lied — or confessing that they had.
It’s not the only time that this White House has been caught ham-handedly trying to play party boss. The governor of New York and his appointee to the U.S. Senate have both been targets of such manipulation — with Gov. David Paterson being shoved out the door and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand protected from challenge.
But in a time of populist rebellion, it is foolish for the White House to try to re-create a top-down political regime. It can only lead to embarrassment.
In Kentucky, there’s a parallel lesson about the folly of debating settled issues. Before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the nation conducted a full-scale debate on the subject of private-sector discrimination. Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats won and Barry Goldwater, the 1964 nominee who voted against the bill on constitutional grounds, and the Republicans lost.
Restaurant and hotel operators lost the right to bar minorities; patrons gained the right to eat and sleep where they chose. Most of the country moved on. But Paul, a libertarian, apparently didn’t get that memo. In an interview last week after winning the Republican nomination, he said he would have a hard time supporting Article II of that bill, the one applying the civil rights guarantee to private businesses.
When a furor erupted, he tried to say that — like Goldwater in his time — he abhorred racism in any form but had a strict view of the Constitution. His handlers wisely removed him from television interviews and declined to relitigate the question.
If the White House was unwise to resuscitate the slating strategy of long ago, Paul was even more foolish to reopen the 1964 Goldwater civil rights debate. You have to respect expiration dates.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at email@example.com.