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Democrats and the Culture of Corruption

As the Rod Blagojevich scandal continues to unfold, it’s worth recalling that Democrats in 2006 -led by Representative Rahm Emanuel- ran on the theme that they would end “the culture of corruption.” Indeed, Emanuel, in dismissing wrongdoings by Democrats at the time, explained them away as simply the actions of a few individuals. About Republicans, Emanuel said, “They have institutional corruption.” The argument put forth was that Democrats would bring ethics and high standards to public office and that the Democratic Party would embody integrity and police its ranks.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

As the sportscaster Warner Wolf used to say, let’s go to the videotape. In 2008 alone, we have the arrest of Democratic Governor Blagojevich on charges of public corruption, which include trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. Former Democratic Representative William Jefferson, a nine-term incumbent, lost his seat in Louisiana because of corruption charges, including allegations that he took bribes -of which $90,000 were allegedly found in his freezer during an FBI raid- from a company seeking lucrative contracts in the Nigerian telecommunications market. Tim Mahoney, the Democrat who succeeded Republican Mark Foley after the latter resigned due to a sex scandal, lost his seat when he, Mahoney, became embroiled in a sex scandal of his own. Former Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace after he was caught up in a call girl operation. Democratic Representative Charlie Rangel is now under investigation for reportedly helping to retain a multimillion-dollar tax loophole for an oil drilling company at the same time that the company’s CEO was pledging $1 million to the Charles B. Rangel School for Public Service at City College of New York. Also, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned as part of a plea bargain in which he pled guilty to two felonies for obstruction of justice.

Democrats seem to be doing a rather fine job at building on a culture of corruption rather than ending it.

Corruption and scandals plague individuals in both parties, of course, and Republicans have had their fair share of them (including the conviction of Senator Ted Stevens earlier this year). There are scoundrels and honorable people in both political parties. But three things are worth bearing in mind at the moment:

The first is that Democrats, in their effort to gain political power, made ethics a defining issue. They are the ones who set the expectations and the ethics bar very high. Having so far failed miserably to meet their own standards, they are vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy.

Second, when enough scandals occur in a concentrated time period, they reach a tipping point. The public begins to associate corruption not simply with individuals but with the party they represent; and that, in turn, can do tremendous damage to the “brand” of a political party. Such a thing happened to Republicans in recent years, and they paid an enormous political price for it. Now that same thing may be happening to Democrats.

Third, President-elect Obama made the centerpiece of his campaign the promise that he would “turn the page” on the old politics and clean out our political Augean stables. As head of the Democratic Party, he is now responsible for its conduct, including its ethical behavior. It looks as if he has his work cut out for him.

The Democratic Party has, in a matter of mere months, succeeded in creating a record of corruption that extends from mayors to governors to member of Congress. And the Blagojevich scandal is not only far from over, it may well extend beyond what we now know. It’s fair to assume that a lot of people are beginning to talk to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in the hopes of gaining leniency, so we will see how far the tentacles of this scandal extend.

The “culture of corruption” appears to be alive and well, aided and abetted by Democrats at almost every level. I rather doubt the national media will be as eager to highlight this issue as they were with Republicans. But the public might connect the dots anyway.