Criminalizing Politics

Steve Poizner, the California insurance commissioner who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, created a stir this week by charging opponent Meg Whitman’s campaign with attempting to coerce him out of the race. He said he had reported her campaign to state and federal law enforcement authorities.

What did Whitman actually do? Well, Poizner said that Whitman consultant Mike Murphy had contacted a Poizner staffer by phone and email to urge him to withdraw from the race. The email, released by Poizner, said: “I hate the idea of each of us spending $20 million beating on the other in the primary, only to have a badly damaged nominee. And we can spend $40 million tearing up Steve if we must; bad for him, bad for us, and a crazy waste to tear up a guy with great future statewide potential.” In the email, Murphy went on to suggest that if Poizner dropped out of the race before the June 8 vote, Whitman and her team would immediately get behind him for a 2012 challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Poizner says that’s not only “strong-arm tactics” but possibly an illegal inducement to get him to withdraw. But isn’t this really just politics as usual? Don’t candidates as a matter of course say “support me this time, and I’ll support you next time” or “run for a different office and I’ll endorse you”? Presidential candidates, or their campaign managers, are often said to have promised the vice presidency to more than one rival to clear the field.

The point about spending $40 million of Republican money tearing up fellow Republicans is a pretty common complaint about party primaries. In fact, National Review correspondent John J. Miller raised just that concern about the Rick Perry-Kay Bailey Hutchison showdown in Texas.

Even during the Rod Blagojevich flap over “selling” a Senate seat, the always-provocative Jack Shafer and Jim Harper both asked, Isn’t this what politicians do? They make deals – including deals like “I’ll support your campaign if you’ll make my buddy (or me) a Cabinet secretary.” No doubt the promises are often worthless, but they still get made. Blagojevich and Murphy have reminded pols all over the country that such deals are better made in person, not via email or telephone.

Politics ain’t beanbag, Mr. Poizner. Accept the deal or reject it. But “let’s clear the field and spend our money fighting the other party” is pretty standard politics. And a darn sight better than another standard political practice, using the taxpayers’ money to bribe the voters to support you.