A correspondent at the Economist criticizes my “rambling” summary that I offered here, and takes me to task for failing to accept that Rahm Emanuel was correct in accusing Republicans in 2006 of “institutional corruption.” The Economist insists that Democrats are not in trouble because of the various acts of corruption we have seen in recent months because these are “individual scandals” which “don’t sink national parties.” The bottom line is that “individual scandals don’t a ‘culture of corruption’ make.”
Here are a few responses to those criticisms:
1. Contrary to what the Economist’s correspondent wrote, the Mark Foley scandal, which was wholly unrelated to Abramoff, had a very bad effect on the 2006 election and the Republican “brand.” In fact, it was a tipping point in which the public became fed up with Republicans. This was understood at the time. The polls showed an indisputable shift in public opinion about the two parties (as documented on Wikipedia here). And this shift was covered widely in the press. Here, for example, is how NPR put it on its web site:
The Republican Party is in turmoil over the scandal surrounding Florida Republican Mark Foley and the sexually explicit Internet messages he sent to former House pages. As calls grow for changes in GOP leadership, the party scrambles to contain the damage as the midterm elections approach.
And this (from October 25, 2006):
The Congressional page scandal involving resigned Rep. Mark Foley has resonated with the public much more than recent corruption scandals, says NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr. As a result, Republicans are beginning to lose their advantage with voters concerned about moral values.
2. The Blagojevich scandal is a sign of “institutional corruption” in this sense: There is something called “the Chicago way” — a way of conducting the business of politics as though politics were the dirtiest of businesses. And those most well known for practicing the Chicago way happen to be Democrats.
3. As Kim Strassel points out in her Wall Street Journal column today
Democrats now have an image problem. The real issue isn’t so much Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s Senate-seat auction, as it is the focus that his scandal has directed toward a wider assortment of Democratic troubles. This isn’t great timing for Barack Obama, who campaigned on cleaner government. The Blagojevich drama is titillating enough, and local Democrats’ dithering over how to fill Mr. Obama’s seat guarantees it will remain a storyline longer than is comfortable. But the Illinois drama has also thrust new light on the ongoing ethical controversies of House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel. At the rate the House Ethics Committee is receiving complaints — over Mr. Rangel’s real-estate problems, tax problems, his privately sponsored trips to the Caribbean, and donations to his center in New York — this too will make headlines for a while.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune published a new story about Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who racked up $420,000 through a series of suspicious real-estate deals. Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, came under scrutiny this fall for questionable earmarking. West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan has been under investigation for a separate earmarking mess. And then there’s Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who has yet to answer questions about the sweetheart mortgage deal he received from Countrywide.
Ms. Strassel goes on, but her point is clear enough: Democrats are beginning to have a problem.
4. Calling the Clinton investigation, impeachment, and trial a “witchhunt,” as our Economist correspondent does, is one way to describe it. Another is an effort to uphold the rule of law. The Clinton impeachment had to do with holding the chief law enforcement officer of the United States accountable for willfully providing false testimony under oath, including answers designed to obstruct the judicial process. That is why U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright eventually held President Clinton in contempt of court (something Clinton chose not to challenge). Some of us believed that the President of the United States ought not be allowed to commit federal crimes and get away with it. I accept that to some ears, including some very sophisticated European ears, this attitude sounds quaint and moralistic and is evidence of a “witchhunt.”
5. In response to the Economist blog post’s central argument: To be sure, when the public is convinced that the party in power is collaborating to game the system, that party’s standing will be badly damaged. But there are other circumstances involving corruption that can harm a party. When you have a spate of corruption cases involving members of one party, and that party is the one that promised to end the “culture of corruption,” it can become problematic. A thought experiment: Imagine that in 2009 and 2010 ten percent of Democrats in the House (25 Members) and Senate (6 Senators) become embroiled in a variety of unrelated corruption scandals. Does anyone believe that these scandals would not spill over and taint other Democrats? Of course they would. The question is, when do things metastasize; and right now, we simply don’t know. Sometimes members of a party who have nothing to do with a particular scandal get pulled under by it.
I understand why correspondents at the Economist hope Democrats won’t pay a price for these acts of corruption; but that is quite a different issue than whether the public will be as forgiving of Democratic transgressions. In the meantime, it appears as if we can count on the Economist to provide as much cover for Democrats as possible. Call it journalism in the Age of Obama.