The real scandal is this obsession with scandal

As Republicans and Democrats squabble over who is most corrupt, the American people become more cynical about the entire political class.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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Corruption scandals are prominent in American politics once again. In 2006, the Republicans were damaged by scandals involving Republican House leader Tom DeLay and Republican-linked lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This time the Democrats are the focus of scandals. Headlines over the past week have included allegations against congressmen Charles Rangel and Eric Massa, as well as New York State’s governor, David Patterson. Rangel stepped down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Massa resigned, and Patterson is barely hanging on.

The Democrats risk becoming known more generally as a party of corruption – and in many respects, they have only themselves to blame for their current predicament.

For a start, the latest charges raise questions about the quality and integrity of individual Democratic Party politicians in office. Take Patterson. Scandal, in fact, propelled him from lieutenant governor into the top role, following Eliot Spitzer’s resignation two years ago due to revelations of frequenting prostitutes. Many believe that Patterson, who is black, was put on the ticket for token diversity reasons, and he has certainly looked out of his depth as governor. The charges against him – calling the woman who accused his aide of sexual assault, and improperly soliciting for free Yankees World Series tickets – are petty in nature, and seem to be evidence of amateurism and incompetence rather than major corruption.

Furthermore, scandals have become big news and have started to stick to the Democrats because Obama and his party are adrift. Healthcare reform has gone badly and there is a strong risk that legislation will fail; the White House has looked inept after backtracking on plans to try alleged terrorist Khalid Sheik Muhammed in a civilian court in Manhattan; and the administration has very little to offer on the economy, while unemployment remains high. When you do not have a compelling message on the major issues, stories that would otherwise be considered minor – like scandals – can come to dominate.

On top of this, tales of palace intrigue are emerging fast and furious. Exhibiting a surprising lack of loyalty, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has let it be known that he was opposed to Obama’s approach to healthcare and terror trials, and recent articles in the Washington Post have argued that Obama would be better off if he had listened to Emanuel. A piece in Sunday’s New York Times questioned how long key policy adviser David Axelrod might remain in his role. Backbiting and scandals are normally signs that the party in power is exhausted. But here we see such indicators only a little over a year since Obama entered the White House.

Most importantly, Democrats can be blamed for today’s scandal discussion because they made such a big deal in 2006 about Republican-related corruption. At the time, the Democrats stressed that the scandals were not simply a case of a ‘few bad apples’, but rather revealed a ‘culture of corruption’, suggesting it was systemic within Republican ranks.

Democrats benefitted electorally from this message – it helped them take back majority control in Congress in 2006, and arguably paved the way for capturing the White House in 2008. But their campaign against corruption was built on the existing cynicism about politics, and it took that cynicism to a higher level. As a result, both parties ultimately paid a price for the Democrats’ move, as more people questioned the motives of politicians of all stripes.

Democrats promised a new era in 2006. Incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would ‘drain the swamp’ of corruption and vowed to preside over ‘the most ethical Congress in history’. But now Pelosi and her fellow Democrats are seen as hypocrites. Scandal-mongering in politics never really went away after 2006, it was just less prominent. But the message from the most recent revelations is, once again, that you can’t trust politicians.

Some on the liberal side have been critical of media reports that equate the latest Democratic scandals with the Republican ones in 2006. Joan Walsh in Salon writes: ‘The big difference between the two sets of scandals is that GOP corruption in 2006 was big-time, it was systemic – and much of it was covered up, ignored and in some cases (House majority leader Tom DeLay, anyone?), perpetrated by Congressional leadership.’ Aside from the ‘systemic’ charge, this rings true. You could even go further. The media this year seems to have made this a bigger story about party-wide corruption sooner in the process than in 2006. And the anti-Democrat theme today also casts a wider net: New York State governor Patterson has had very little to do with Democrats in Washington.

It might be unfair to compare the Democrats today with Republicans in 2006, but today’s circumstances are different, in large part due to the Democrats’ earlier campaigns. For a start, Democrats pledged a higher standard, and when they do not live up to that standard, it is understandable that people call them on it. But more to the point, it doesn’t take much to spark talk of a corruption endemic among the Democrats, and there is a readiness to link far-flung politicians under the same ‘Democrat corruption’ banner, precisely because cynicism about politicians is even higher today than in 2006.

Democrats are continuing to push an anti-corruption line in other areas, without recognising how the message undermines the foundation of support for the entire political class, including themselves. They have been beating the anti-lobbying drum loudest (although without much success), a campaign which implies that politicians are on the take. And liberals have been most vocal in criticising the recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that now prohibits limits on corporate spending in political campaigns – a criticism which suggests that this form of corruption will only get worse.

As the Democrats are more associated with government intervention, their anti-corruption message raises a particular problem for them. When they seek to introduce reforms that would give the government greater influence – from the stimulus package to healthcare reforms to other areas – a sizeable number of people opposes them on the grounds that the government is inherently corrupt. Hence, there have been numerous scam allegations associated with stimulus spending (‘porkulus’), as well as a spotlight cast on the side-deal concessions made to Democrats to gain their support for the health bill (such as the ‘Cornhusker kickback’ deal with Nebraska senator Ben Nelson and the ‘Louisiana purchase’ deal with Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu). Moreover, these types of arguments backfire on Democrats because they lead to a focus on the motives of individual politicians – Democrats as well as Republicans – rather than debating the political merits of an issue.

Republicans today seek to take advantage of the situation. Like the Democrats in 2006, they cannot resist indulging in scandal-mongering of their own when there is an opportunity of electoral gain – in this case, they are hoping a ‘Democrats are corrupt’ meme will help them in the November 2010 mid-term elections. ‘Democrats are treading water in the very swamp they promised to drain’, said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

But in a number of areas, Republicans are not benefitting from the Democrats’ problems. Despite the Democrats’ recent electoral defeats and governing difficulties, the New York Times/CBS poll in February found that more people (57 per cent) viewed the Republicans unfavorably than they did the Democrats (51 per cent). The Republicans’ attempt to use the Democrats’ scandals looks like another instance where the Democrats’ woes will not translate immediately into Republican advantage. When they hear Republicans say that corruption is pervasive among Democrats, many people will not conclude that Republicans are trustworthy but rather that both parties are as bad as each other. Indeed, another case that caused an uproar recently is the House ethics committee’s exoneration of seven representatives, despite evidence that a defence-industry firm that employed the PMA lobbying group were giving campaign contributions as a quid-pro-quo for government contracts. But this case involves members of both parties, and thus will contribute to the view that all are corrupt.

Anti-corruption campaigns are inherently problematic. They are usually a distraction from the major issues of the day. And, even though such movements are understood as ‘progressive’, the measures taken to address corruption typically restrict democratic rights, and – ironically – give more power to the same state that is charged with being corrupt.

But pushing the anti-corruption angle has an even greater detrimental effect on political life today. The bigger issue facing both parties is an essential lack of faith in government institutions – and not just in Washington, but at the state level as well. That fundamental problem is the one that needs to be addressed. The politics of scandal keys into dissatisfaction with the political class as a whole and reinforces it, thus making the underlying condition worse. Living off scandal is the self-destructive temptation in American politics.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his new blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics USA


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