'Journal Editorial Report,' June 5, 2010

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This is a rush transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," June 5, 2010. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, FOX HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," the White House faces new questions about its backroom deal making. Is it just old-style Chicago politics or does the administration's latest job offer cross a legal line?

And international outrage over Israel's bloody flotilla raid leaves Mideast peace in the balance, and the so-called ally in Turkey with some explaining to do.

Plus, as California voters get set to head to the polls, what Tuesday's primary results could mean for the Republican Party and for some big-name Democrats, come November.

Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

Well, is it just old-style Chicago politics in the White House these days or has Team Obama crossed a legal line? That question dogged the administration for a second straight week, after it was disclosed that they tried to convince another Democrat to forgo a primary run by dangling a job in front of him.

Colorado's Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff revealed Wednesday White House deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina, contacted him last fall to see if he'd be interested in an administration job, instead of running against the White House-backed candidate, Senator Michael Bennett.

Here's Romanoff's version of the story:


U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE ANDREW ROMANOFF, D-CO.: He suggested three positions that might be available to me were I not to pursue a Senate race, and e-mailed the descriptions of those positions that day. I informed him that I was not going to change course.


GIGOT: This comes, of course, just days after the White House admitted to enlisting former President Bill Clinton to talk with Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak about staying out of the Senate race there.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs defended the White House action Thursday, saying no formal job offer had been made to Romanoff, and suggesting that such overtures are a normal part of the political process.


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think the leaders of parties have long had an interest in ensuring that supporters didn't run against each other in contested primaries. That is what was done in this case.


GIGOT: Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor Dan Henninger; opinionjournal.com editor James Taranto; and Washington columnist Kim Strassel.

Kim, nothing here, as Robert Gibbs said, Chicago politics — oh, sorry — not Chicago politics, but politics as usual? Or is there some legal liability here?

KIM STRASSEL, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST: I think you could have both Chicago politics and legal liability.

GIGOT: Often, they are the same.

STRASSEL: You talk to people who have been in prior administrations and congressmen and they go, yes, is there political deal making that goes on? Yes. But you do it with a wink and a nod and you make very careful there is no quid pro quo. What is sort of distinguishing this is the brazenness with which the White House has done this. This kind of Chicago mentality that, of course, the party controls the stuff.

GIGOT: Sadly.

STRASSEL: On the legal aspect, you know, this is tougher, but it will be difficult for a prosecutor to actually bring a criminal quid pro quo charge. But when you get into elections things get tough and very dicey and you have to be careful. And there is such a thing, called the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from interfering with political activity. And I think there will be some focus on that.

GIGOT: Let's deal with the quid pro quo question first, James. The statute is such that it basically requires that somehow people think that there was a direct job offer designed to get you out of a race.

JAMES TARANTO, EDITOR, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM: It does. It says whoever directly or indirectly promises any employment or position in exchange for political activity.

GIGOT: Right. But it has to be a promise.

TARANTO: It has to be a promise. The question with Romanoff would be was there an indirect promise. And then, of course, it's a criminal statute, so how do you prove that beyond a reasonable doubt. The exacting standard of proof is in conflict with the vagueness of the law.

With Sestak, I think they're in the clear if their version of the story is true, because the positions the statute refers to are positions the statute refers to are positions made or provided for by an act of Congress. And the job they're talking about is an unpaid position created by executive order, the president's advisory panel. So although President Obama's falling short of his promise to vanquish cynicism — it would appear that there may not have been any federal crimes committed here.

GIGOT: The atmospherics here at the very least, Dan, are not helpful to the president, who said, look, we'll change the culture of Washington, change the climate, none of that dirty business everybody else did. and it sounds at a minimum, like what everybody else does.

DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: Well, that is — I think is the big problem. I'm not sure the details really matter. This — these stories could not be happening at a worse moment in American politics for this administration and for the Democrats. The one thing the American people are agreed on is that they are really fed up with business as usual. And we are heading in to what I think can be called a reform election. This is the opposite of reform.

Secondly, the Republicans, I think, are going to benefit invariably. In the generic poll in the House, whether you want a Republican or a Democrat, the Republicans are up eight points. That was before this began. It's terrible for the Democrats.

GIGOT: Kim, to really have some legal liability, you have to have a legal investigation. And Congress is not going to do anything and put anybody under oath. And the Justice Department doesn't seem to be doing anything. So how is the White House going to be held accountable for this?

STRASSEL: Well, right now, the only one who is doing any accounting is the press and they actually deserve some credit. Because they've really stuck to this. But you're right, Congress is so busy finishing up all of the Bush-era investigations — they haven't had a chance to actually focus on their new administration and president. And they are not going to, OK? The Justice Department, so far, they've had a request to actually appoint a special counsel to look at this. They have declined that. But the pressure will keep on. This is a snowball that just started to roll. Now that, for instance, Romanoff has put out e-mails. There are now demands rolling in for any more documents the White House has on this. And I think the White House is going to be under huge pressure to respond to some of those press requests.

GIGOT: And just to add to the fun, we have Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, going on trial. And according to reports this week, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and White House senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, have been subpoenaed to testify. They will presumably be under oath.

HENNINGER: Yes. Also you have the — the prosecutors have got 500 hours of taped conversations with Blagojevich, presumably with some of these people. His defense team has demanding access to those tapes, and presumably some of it will be played in court.

GIGOT: And the question would be whether or not Emanuel or Jarrett tried to interfere with the replacement of Barack Obama and who Blagojevich would have appointed. So, again, a case perhaps of the White House trying to direct Senate choices.

TARANTO: Yes. By the way, it is not necessarily the case that Congress will not look into this. There will be a new Congress in 2011. And President Obama has to be very worried about the Republicans taking over one or the other house.

GIGOT: But you are not telling me the Democrats are going to investigate this?

TARANTO: No, no. That is why I said 2011.

GIGOT: OK, all right.

When we come back, international outrage over the flotilla raid leaves Israel further isolated and threatens the future of Mideast peace. But what role did our so-called ally in Turkey play in the bloody confrontation? We'll investigate, next.


GIGOT: Israel once again this week found itself on the receiving end of international condemnation after its naval commandos boarded a flotilla of ships headed for the Gaza Strip on Monday, killing nine passengers in the process. The Turkish flagged vessels were attempting to break Israel's blockade of Gaza put in place to prevent rockets and other weapons from being smuggled to Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the raid on Wednesday, and accused critics of hypocrisy.


BENJAMIN NATANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: This wasn't a love boat. This was a hate boat. These weren't pacifists. They weren't peace activists. These were violent supporters of terrorism. But I regret to say that, for many in the international community, no evidence is needed. Israel is guilty, until proven guilty. Once again, Israel is told that it has a right to defend itself, but is condemned every time it exercises that right.


GIGOT: We're back with Dan Henninger. Also joining the panel, foreign affairs columnist and deputy editor Bret Stephens and editorial features editor Rob Pollock.

So, Bret, conventional wisdom is that this episode has further isolated Israel, given a propaganda coup to its enemies. Is that wisdom right?

BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: The wisdom, well, the conventional wisdom is right in the sense that conventional —

GIGOT: That is what it says. Is that correct? Are they right it is further isolated?

STEPHENS: Tends to be self reinforcing. And so Israel does find itself on the back foot. Israel does find itself trying to explain the action. what I find amazing is that people, who call themselves pro- Palestinian sympathizers, have no trouble associating with violent movements that want to give aid and comfort to a terrorist group, Hamas, in Gaza, that rejects the two-state solution, that speaks in violently anti-Semitic tones about Israel, and calls for Israel's destruction. And until you reverse the conventional wisdom, this will just be a vicious cycle.

GIGOT: But does that suggest, as even some of Israel's friends have, Rob, suggested that this was a mistake, the way it was handled.

ROB POLLOCK, EDITORIAL FEATURES EDITOR: Yes, I think that is right. As Prime Minister Netanyahu rightly says, rightly points out, Israel is generally judged guilty until proven innocent. And that means, it is incumbent upon Israel to, when it does something legitimate, like try to enforce the Gaza blockade, to do it in the smartest manner possible. And I think there's no question that the manner in which it forced the blockade was a strategic blunder. The Israelis should not have been shocked that the boarding party on the Mavi Marmara was met with violence. That clearly meant that they didn't have their finger on the pulse of Turkey and — hold on, let me finish. And there were alternatives that Israel has used in the past do deal with these kinds of things, such as disabling the rudder of a ship at sea and simply towing it into port.

GIGOT: You couldn't have done that in Turkish waters though, otherwise the Turks would have been outraged.

POLLOCK: Well, this — we're not talking about Turkish waters. But they could have just disabled the ship and towed it in to —

STEPHENS: But there is this assumption with Israel that they're always going to have some kind of superman maneuver. And you have to assume that they had given precisely those kinds of options some thought before they did what they did. In fact, of the six boats in this convoy, five of them were taken peacefully. Israel has a history, in the past, of stopping convoys in — headed toward Gaza in a similar way. So, in fact, this was probably the alternative that they thought was the likeliest to succeed. What they didn't anticipate, and here I agree with you, is that this one particular ship would have had people who were prepared to assault and probably kill the commandos who came on board.

GIGOT: You run the risk, if you disable the ship — say, you try to blow up the rudder or something, you run into other damage being done in open waters. There's risk to any kind of —

POLLOCK: There are risks to any kind of thing. But we know that in the past, Israel has chosen to deal with these kinds of situations in different ways for precisely the same reason, precisely because they fear that they would meet with violence if they tried to board a ship.

STEPHENS: This is a distraction from the issue. Again, once again, Israel is being judged by the standard of either it gets an A-plus operationally, or it gets —

GIGOT: To defend themselves.

STEPHENS: Or — or that it can't defend itself. What we have to be examining is just who was on the ship, who was supporting them, why the Turkish government let a group that has known terrorist ties, including to al Qaeda, from leaving its port in order to break a legal blockade to supply a terrorist group. That is what we ought to be talking about. Not whether Israel could have more exquisitely fine-tuned the operation to come up with a zero casualty result.

GIGOT: On that point, Rob, you have made a lot of trips to Turkey. You know the country very well and think it has taken an ominous turn under the current prime minister.

POLLOCK: That's right. I think there is no country — There are few countries in the world outside of, you know, North Korea and Iran that have a more relentlessly and virulently anti-American press. And it's been that — and it's been that —

GIGOT: Wow. Iran and North Korea and Turkey. They've been an ally of ours for 40 to 50 years.

POLLOCK: Yes. And if you read what's been going on in their press, both their secular press, which is extremely left-wing in the Islamist press. They have been accusing Americans of the worst things ever since the Iraq war. There were stories running in the Turkish press about how American soldiers were harvesting the organs of dead Iraqis and selling them to Jews in New York and Tel Aviv. And when I interviewed Prime Minister Erdogan about that in 2006, he refused to condemn the story. He said he understood why stories like that circulated.

HENNINGER: So what is the point? I think the point is Prime Minister Erdogan is making a bid for leadership in the Islamic world. It's pretty clear that that's what he's been doing. The famous incident last year at Davos, where he was sitting on a stage and insulted Shimon Peres, called him a killer.

GIGOT: Former prime minister of Israel, right.

HENNINGER: Former prime minister, and walked off, he got tremendous support for that in the Arab street. And clearly, he's trying to raise Turkey up as a kind of player in the Middle East. He has had — he has made overtures to Syria, had one of Hamas' most radical leaders in Turkey. He's even had the head of the Sudan, Bashir, visiting him.

GIGOT: Bret, we've got to go.

But big, big challenge for the Obama foreign policy going forward, both keeping thus blockade going, to prevent Hamas from getting weapons, and the turn in Turkey.

All right, still ahead, a primary preview as California gets set to head for the polls on Tuesday. We'll have the latest on two high-profile races, what their outcomes mean for the Republican Party and some big name Democrats come fall.


GIGOT: The stage is set for a showdown on Tuesday as California residents head to the polls to vote in two high-profile Republican primaries. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state insurance commissioner, Steve Poizner, are squaring off for a chance to take on Democrat Jerry Brown in November's gubernatorial election. While ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is locked in a three-way race with former Congressman Tom Campbell and Tea Party favorite Chuck Devore. The winner will face Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer in the fall.

We're back with Dan Henninger and Kim Strassel. And opinionjournal.com assistant editor, Alicia McKinley, who's covered California, also joins us on the panel.

So to stay ahead of Poizner, Meg Whitman has had to run to the right. How much damage is that doing her for the general election in what is a pretty liberal state of California?

ALICIA MCKINLEY, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM ASSISTANT EDITOR: Well, I think we've seen her taking drastically more conservative positions or apparently conservative positions on immigration —

GIGOT: More restrictive on immigration?

MCKINLEY: Mm-hm, and as well as abortion. And also, Steve Poizner's attacks on her and her attacks on him, they really — it's really gotten to be so dirty that voters are just sick of both of them. They have been bombarding the airwaves. People don't want to hear them or hear about them anymore.

So you see Jerry Brown just surge in the polls against Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner because of that.

GIGOT: All right.

Can Whitman run on themes that can beat Jerry Brown in the fall?

HENNINGER: Yes, she can. There is a little bit of a dilemma, I think, running as a conservative in California. The conservatives in California are very conservative, all right? You've got to contend with a conservative base. That's what happens in the primary.

However, in the general election, about 45 percent of the electorate in California is Democratic. I think 31 is Republican. 20 percent is Independent. And the Independent numbers are rising. So you have to pivot obviously in the general election. And the Democrats have to be very happy that, over in the primaries, the Republicans tend to beat each other up in seeing who can be further to the right.

GIGOT: All right, Kim, let's look — turn to the Senate race. Everybody says Barbara Boxer is vulnerable this year as she seeks another term. Who would be the strongest Republican against her in the fall?

STRASSEL: Well, that is what this whole race is turning on right now. And it gets to Dan's point, is the question of electability. You have Carly Fiorina, who's actually winning in the polls, and she looks mostly well positioned to win the primary. And she has done it by claiming she's a sort of true conservative. You've got the former Congressman, who has been out there saying, look, you know, I have a better chance of actually winning in the general election. I am pro-choice. I am pro-gay marriage and —

GIGOT: This is Tom Campbell?

STRASSEL: Tom Campbell, right. And he's saying that you need to give me a shot because I've got a — better odds of beating Barbara Boxer. And the polls actually bear that out a little bit. Now, I'm not sure how that plays out in the end. Both of them are within striking distance of Barbara Boxer. And that ought to be encouraging to Republicans, either way, coming out of this primary.

GIGOT: Carly Fiorina says these cultural issues that have worked to Boxer's advantage, abortion, environmentalism, are not primary issues this year.


GIGOT: The voters are most concerned about the economy. They're most concerned about jobs. And, in fact, California's unemployment rate is above 12 percent. So is she right that those issues give her a chance?

MCKINLEY: Yes, I don't think voters are really going to be interested in, you know, abortion, or even immigration, so much as the jobs. Where are the jobs? And Barbara Boxer's record on the economy and what she has done in her record on the water and the droughts in central California, where I think, eight counties have unemployment over 20 percent.

GIGOT: Yes, that is amazing.

MCKINLEY: I think that's really going to hurt her.

HENNINGER: The campaign though is going to require tremendous self- discipline by Carly Fiorina.

GIGOT: She's a rookie.

HENNINGER: She's a rookie. She has shown herself to be testy when people ask her about Hewlett-Packard, it's business dealings in Russia, that sort of thing. Barbara Boxer will try and get under her skin and push the election towards cultural issues like abortion. She's going to have to fight that.

GIGOT: Kim, let me ask you to turn briefly to Arkansas, where Bill Clinton, former president, went to his — back to his home state of Arkansas to campaign for Blanche Lincoln, the senator there, who is under the gun and being challenged from the left. And unions are running against her, a candidate, Bill Halter, the lieutenant governor. And Bill Clinton took on these unions there.

STRASSEL: Somebody has to help Blanche Lincoln, because — the Democratic Senatorial Committee seems to be letting her down there, either sink or swim. So she's really got a tough challenge. Almost all the money from the big Democratic base and an organized structure, the unions and the activists are all behind Halter. And this could be the end of her, this next week in the primary.

GIGOT: What do you think the message of Bill Clinton's trip is there, Dan?

HENNINGER: I'm not quite sure. It was so interesting that he got into a fight at that level, because it has national implications for Clinton to go down there and be talking about a party that is going through a — an agenda, purification. I mean, to me, it resonates of what is going on back in Washington, more than what is in Arkansas. So perhaps, Bill Clinton is sending a smell message to his party back home.

GIGOT: OK, all right, Dan, thanks.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits and Misses" of the week.

GIGOT: Time for "Hits and Misses" of the week — Bret?

You have seen the billboards going up with George Bush's picture, with a caption, "Miss me yet"?

Well, increasingly, I do. Former President Bush was in Michigan to give a speech. He refused to accuse his successor of any misdeeds, the way his successor routinely accuses him. But he also refused to apologize for the record of his presidency, most of all, deposing Saddam Hussein and waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He said he'd do it again. I think that is straight talk that we could use today in the White House.

GIGOT: Do it again to save lives, he said.


POLLOCK: A very reluctant miss to the great Sir Paul McCartney, who got the well-deserved Gershwin Award from the Library of Congress for popular songs. Yet, felt the need somehow to politicize the award. He was excited at first and told critics to lay off President Obama. And then, when he got there to get the — to get the award, he said, "It was good to have a president in the White House finally who knew what a library is." I don't expect much knowledge of current events from my rock stars, but I do — I would expect them to know that the former president's wife was a librarian, if they're going to make a comment like that.

GIGOT: James?

TARANTO: A miss to the game of soccer, which is crushing the self-esteem of children all across North America. In response, a Canadian Youth League has instituted a new rule that a team that wins by more than five goals, loses by default. I say why risk your self-esteem by playing soccer in the first place?

GIGOT: All right, James, thanks.

That's it for this week's edition of the "Journal Editorial Report." Thanks to my panel and to all of you for watching.

I'm Paul Gigot. We hope to see you right here next week.

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