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As people looked away in disillusionment… we know what filled the void… The lobbyists… the special interests who turned our government into a game only they can afford to play. They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills… they think they own this government, but we’re here today to take it back. The time for that politics is over. It’s time to turn the page .
–Barack Obama, fall of 2008
Politicians are going to destroy this country. They are weak and ineffective. They are controlled by the lobbyists of the special interests. Every one of these lobbyists that give money expects something for it… They could take a politician and have him jump off this ledge.
–Donald Trump, last Wednesday
And here you thought Trump was wrong about everything. Chatting up CNN’s Anderson Cooper, he became the second GOP candidate in two days to pose as a reformer. Last Monday, Jeb Bush impersonated one in a ‘major speech’ at Florida State University. Nor was Bush first in the pool. In his May 27 kickoff, Rick Santorum, the evangelical teen idol of 2012, cited corruption 10 times and abortion just twice. Santorum’s attempted makeover might have raised more eyebrows were he not flat-lining at roughly 1 percent in the polls.
A day after Santorum’s announcement, George Pataki became the first candidate in either party to propose a specific ethics reform. Pataki called for a revolving door bill to stem the flood tide of ex-officials flowing into K Street from every government office. Trouble is, Pataki polls at roughly 0 percent, so when he talks, no one hears him either. With Bush and Trump blowing the bugle, more Republicans will fall in. If they blow loud enough, they may even wake up a few Democrats.
Government corruption is perhaps the central issue of the 2016 campaign because it’s the biggest problem facing our country. It’s the reason other problems never get solved. Corruption, not the chimera we call partisan gridlock, is what makes our government so inefficient and ineffectual and our politics so empty and vicious. It’s why an ever more cynical public has fled the civic life of the nation. It’s also why Democrats lose elections, though you wouldn’t know it to talk to one.
This isn’t the first time corruption has driven a national election, though with each passing year the public grows more forceful and explicit in expressing its ire. The above quote from Obama typified his 2008 campaign rhetoric. By the end of the race the promise of reform provided the rousing finish of most of his speeches. It’s what voters thought he meant when he vowed to ‘transform’ politics. His reform agenda was his most detailed. It too included a revolving door policy, a ban on lobbyists in high government positions and a memorable promise to invite C-SPAN cameras into health care negotiations. The Chicago Sun-Times called that pledge “a standard line of the campaign trail, a crowd pleaser that always, always, won him applause.”
In office Obama forgot all about ethics reforms. It was the biggest mistake of his presidency. Republicans didn’t stop him. It is a hallmark of many ethics reforms, including most of his, that they may be implemented by executive order. Obama didn’t pursue them because he didn’t want to. Consultants who make rich livings off corporate clients may have told him no one cares about ‘process issues,’ as he took to calling reform. His top hires, most of whom had worked either on Wall Street or as lobbyists or ‘consultants’ to big corporations—the lobbyist pledge was the first campaign promise Obama broke—may have told him reform was impractical. It hurts to say it, but he may never have meant any of it to start with. All we know is he didn’t do it, and not having done it, couldn’t even talk about it.
In his stupefyingly clueless opinion in Citizens United. Justice Anthony Kennedy distinguished between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ corruption. The former is mostly bribery and happens when any public official accepts any sort of personal payment for any official act. The latter occurs when the same guy deposits the money in a campaign account rather than his wallet and never admits the transaction’s true nature even to himself, or simply acts in the unspoken hope of future, unspecified reward. While citing no
proof—there’s none to be found in the pleadings or anywhere else–Kennedy said soft corruption does no harm — and anyway no one cares about it. In real life it does the most harm of any form of corruption, and almost everyone cares deeply about it.
Think what our energy policy might be like if the Koch brothers made solar panels. Imagine Dodd-Frank if elite Dems didn’t raise money on Wall Street, or what Obamacare would be like if Obama hadn’t cut preemptive deals with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. If Obama had less concern for his relations with big banks, might he have offered real relief to homeowners swindled in the mortgage crisis? If he hadn’t been wooing big business, surely he’d have pushed for a hike in the minimum wage in 2009 when he had the votes, and ever after reaped the fiscal, economic and political rewards.
As to how much we care, there’s proof aplenty. In the 2000s the long simmering public anger at corruption began boiling over. In a 2006 CBS poll 77 percent of voters said lobbyists bribing members is “just the way things work in Congress.” In a Fox News poll, 91 percent said they were concerned about Washington corruption, up from 81 percent the year before. In a January 2006 Gallup poll, 96 percent of voters said corruption would be an important factor in their vote for Congress that year. In November Democrats took back the House and Senate.
That Obama translated this public anger into a message in 2008 — but didn’t follow up with policy in 2009 — may reveal an underlying worldview. When Justice Kennedy pronounced the public unconcerned with systemic corruption he spoke not for the Tea Party but for a Washington establishment of which Obama, many political reporters, most political consultants and all lobbyists are members for life. Some of the politicians want out but fear they’ll die without the money they’re so addicted to. In their denial, they insist voters don’t care enough about corruption to vote them out of office.
For blind politicians, pollsters are like seeing-eye dogs. Politicians want to know if voters really care enough about corruption to base votes on it. Their pollsters have the data to prove it but for the above noted reasons they may not credit or share it. Lately two pollsters of strong reputation have made the case. In 2009 and 2010, libertarian-leaning Scott Rasmussen asked voters on what basis they had cast their ballots. In both years they cited corruption first, ahead of jobs and the economy.
Stan Greenberg, a longtime observer of the habits and concerns of white working-class voters and Bill Clinton’s 1992 pollster, has argued that the integrity and efficiency of government is the key to Democrats winning back this demographic in 2016, a goal he considers doable outside a dozen or so states of the Confederacy and the solid Republican West. In a recent memo Greenberg argued that white working class voters are “open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda…Yet they are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed.”
Greenberg addresses those who believe the white working class is out of reach for Democrats and who may impute all white hostility to government to racial motive: “White working class and downscale voters in our surveys do support major parts of a progressive, activist agenda particularly when a Democratic candidate boldly attacks the role of money and special interests dominating government and… promotes reforms to ensure that average citizens get both their say and their money’s worth.”
As I’ve written here before, the country agrees with Democrats on nearly every issue now under debate — and by margins often exceeding 60/40. The list includes not just progressive economic policies like a minimum wage and paid family leave, but climate change, gun safety, gay marriage, the lifting of the Cuban embargo, all of the president’s immigration reforms, every tax proposal and nearly every budget priority. We say we’re polarized, but on these big issues we’re as near to consensus as we ever get. Voters who agree with Democrats vote Republican because of their fury at the condition of their government. Democrats are the party of government. If the Democrats won’t fix the government, voters won’t let them near it.