Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Culture of Corruption

In the six weeks since the Katrina debacle, the wheels have come off the bus of the Bush administration and the Republican Party’s iron grip on national politics would appear to be at risk.

Tom DeLay has been indicted and has stepped down as House Majority Leader. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is under investigation by the SEC. White House procurement official David Safavian has been indicted in the Jack Abramoff lobbyist-corruption probe. Karl Rove and Scooter Libby are now acknowledged by their attorneys to be in “serious legal jeopardy.”

Then there is the cronyism. First there was Michael Brown, the politically-connected but administratively-challenged FEMA director. Then came the Harriet Miers nomination, which was indefensible on any grounds other than personal affection.

For a Democratic Party firmly ensconced in the psyche of the opposition party, the wave of Republican missteps and legal problems have visions of taking back Congress in 2006. The emerging theme of running against the Culture of Corruption evokes the 1974 Watergate Class that dominated Congress for a decade.

But the Culture of Corruption theme is a trap for the Democratic Party. Consider for a moment the results of recent polls. In the wake of unrelenting bad news and bad press, the President’s job approval numbers have fallen to 40% or below across a number of polls. In a similar vein, 60-65% of those polled believe the country is moving in the wrong direction.

However, the Democratic Party has not been the beneficiary of this broad-based disaffection. An October 10th Pew Research poll placed the job approval ratings of Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders at an identical 32%, while a contemporaneous NBC/Wall Street Journal poll gave favorable ratings to the Democratic and Republican Parties of 35% and 36%, respectively.

As a theme for the nationalization of the 2006 congressional races, the Culture of Corruption is a losing bet for several reasons. First, and foremost, the Democrats are no virgins at the political corruption game. Lest the Party leaders succumb to a form of collective Alzheimer’s, the Republican Revolution spearheaded by Newt Gingrich was built upon an anti-corruption platform––names such as Jim Wright and Dan Rostenkowsky come to mind––and the repeated efforts at campaign finance reform reflect national disgust at a corrupt network of contributions, lobbyists and favors endemic to both parties.

Second, while the Republicans may control the levers of power nationally and are therefore the visible players in the corruption game, the political parties play at the local level as well, and there is enough graft going on within the states to taint candidates of every stripe.

A quick look at the New Jersey gubernatorial race should be enough to make the point. In a race whose political ads have sullied the airways in at least three states, Democratic Senator Jon Corzine is having no luck pinning the Culture of Corruption rap on his opponent, Doug Forrester, as Forrester is in turn tying Corzine to the cronyism and corruption of the former Democratic Governor, Jim McCreevey, who resigned after disclosing that he had appointed his gay lover to head the state office of homeland security.

While Corzine remains the odds on favorite––a 90-10 bet at––by the tenor of the ads, you would think that he was a long-time inside pol in the corrupt New Jersey Democratic machine, rather than a former leader of the heady intergalactic investment banking firm of Goldman Sachs.

And New Jersey is not an aberration. A quick look at a few other states suggests how unlikely the Culture of Corruption gambit is to work for the Democrats. Across the river in Pennsylvania, State Senator Vincent Fumo (D), minority chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, is under federal investigation for a novel influence peddling scheme wherein he allegedly solicited and received a $17 million gift to a tax-exempt organization that he controlled in exchange for supporting a utility merger.

Across the country in New Mexico, the state Democratic Party is struggling with the recent indictments of the current and prior State Treasurers, both elected Democrats, who are accused of the more conventional charges of taking kickbacks in exchange for state contracts, both in the form of large wire transfers and small bills in white envelopes.

The problem is simple. Since the founding of the nation, politicians with power have sold favors for funds. Not all of them, and not most of them, but many of them nonetheless. Corruption in Washington, DC, did not start five years ago, and neither did political favoritism in high-level appointments. Just ask Bobby Kennedy, Abe Fortas, Bert Lance and Mack McLarty. Oh, yes, and Hillary Clinton.

The American people understand the American political system. Politicians across the political spectrum appoint their friends for two reasons: first, because they trust them, and second, because they can. And quite often the appointees are qualified for the job. If the voters are disgusted, they are going to stay home, not vote for the other party. After all, they have long memories, and despite what people in DC might think, they are not stupid

No, if the Democrats want to win, they would do well to have a better candidate, a better organization, and a better message. Forget the Culture of Corruption. How about dealing with the steady erosion in the middle class at home, and American credibility and leadership abroad. Someone who could fix those problems might be worth voting for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Thanks for looking beyond the short term anger to a more pragmatic long term solution to the next presidential election. I, like you, wish there was an indvidual who shines through.

Edwards looked good on The Daily Show but I wonder how well he would hold up under a different lense. Any ideas of who else is waiting for the spot light?