Chris Christie and our GOP corruption nightmare: Fight, or this is how Ben Carson and Huckabee catch fire

Progressives can either declare war on corruption and secrecy, or risk electing a right-wing populist demagogue

Published May 10, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

            (Benjamin Wheelock/Salon/AP/Mel Evans)
(Benjamin Wheelock/Salon/AP/Mel Evans)

If you like politics, it was one heck of a week. Three Republicans kicked off presidential campaigns, a record, I’ll bet. Adding to the excitement, New York state Senate president Dean Skelos got indicted for extortion just three months after New York House Speaker Sheldon Silver got indicted for the very same thing. Skelos is the fifth Senate leader in four years to be nailed for corruption. I bet that’s a record too.

As the 2016 presidential race heats up, the Republican field continues to mystify and alarm. We can now safely say this batch is crazier than the last. On Monday, Ben Carson kicked things off with a gospel choir singing a chorus of Eminem’s "Lose Yourself. " One assumes Carson read the original lyrics, which include this gem: This world is mine for the taking. Make me king, as we move toward a new world order.  Yikes.

Carson’s mind is, to rob from Tom Stoppard, a cabinet of vulgar curios. He calls Obamacare “The worst thing that has happened… since slavery” and says America is “very much like Nazi Germany.” Save for a biographical bit about his mom, his speech was a long rant against "elites," "socialists," "political correctness," "thought police" and the national debt. Even listening closely one couldn’t tell if he was just exploiting the paranoia of his audience or had actually succumbed to it himself.

On Tuesday, Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee joined the fray. Fiorina announced in a one-minute video that opened with shots of -- and at -- Hillary Clinton. Listening to her one got a sense of what Sarah Palin would sound like had she gone to Stanford, as when she said the Founders didn’t want a permanent political class when in fact they were all members of one. She vows to run government like a business, by which we assume she means one other than Hewlett Packard. She’s clearly in the running for the award for most pointless campaign, unless of course Trump gets in.

Huckabee threw the biggest shindig, a shrewd move for a guy looking to seem like a bigger threat than he is. When he came on the scene in '08 he struck me as a nice man with whom I happened to disagree. But there’s nothing quite like the pursuit of a GOP presidential nod to corrode a man’s character. His execrable campaign book, "Gods, Guns, Grits and Gravy," picked raw every cultural scab on the body politic he could reach. More interestingly, he’s running as an economic populist of the Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan school. He could conceivably reassemble his Iowa evangelical base, marshal Buchanan’s old New Hampshire crowd and surprise us all. But he’s probably developed too much of the wrong kind of transparency to pull off such a delicate trick.

In New Jersey, Chris Christie made news by not getting indicted. You can do that in New Jersey, make news by not getting indicted. Three people close to him were indicted this week over Bridgegate, though, and one pled guilty. Christie called it a"‘vindication" and fled to New Hampshire where he said, without apparent irony, that people were making too much of Tom Brady deflating all those footballs.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton had another really good/bad week. On the plus side she went to Nevada, where sitting behind what looked like the children’s table at a public library, she made some crisp points on immigration that in regard to parents of "Dreamers" went farther than Obama’s executive orders go. It was her second major policy speech, coming just a week after one in which she endorsed sentencing reform and pinning cameras on cops.

It was a welcome surprise, but not what many reporters made of it. In an article headlined "Hillary Clinton Shows New Willingness to Tackle Risky Issues," the New York Times' Patrick Healy wrote that “…barreling ahead with her agenda” a Hillary “unafraid to court controversy on an issue dear to her” had shown “a new willingness to take stands that turn off some voters or interest groups.” If only.

The problem is that none of Clinton’s positions are in the least bit bold. She got out ahead of Obama on immigration, but only on his executive order, not his policy. The immigration positions she took are standard Democratic fare and public support for them hovers around 60 percent. Sentencing reform is the first bipartisan idea in ages to show any legs. Support for cop cameras polls at about 70 percent. Hillary has now made news by supposedly breaking with Barack on immigration and Bill on crime. I’ll pay attention when she breaks with both on the economy.

Clinton’s bad week took the form of Bill Clinton saying he’ll go right on raking in half-million dollar speaking fees because, after earning upward of $125 million since leaving office, “I gotta pay the bills.” The Times piece further commended Hillary for her “bullish decision” to “court donors” for a super PAC, but that was bad too. Our campaign finance laws are a sickening sham, but we still have a few left on the books. One states that a declared candidate can’t raise money for an "independent" super PAC. Hillary’s "bullish decision" is to attend the PAC’s fundraisers, but leave just before the pitch. This is a problem.

Only one candidate had a really good week. In his first day in the race, Bernie Sanders raised $1.5 million, more than any Republican did on day one. Better yet, it came from 35,000 donors in amounts averaging $43. Best of all, by early this week 175,000 volunteers had signed on to help.

Later in the week an Iowa Q poll showed Sanders polling 15 percent, putting him four points ahead of Vice President Biden and 12 points ahead of every other Clinton challenger.  Democrats know Clinton as well as you can know a politician. Forty percent of them want another candidate. Taken together, these numbers say Sanders may clear out the second tier early. If he does, he’ll frame an extraordinary debate and bring with him to the convention a mighty force of delegates, the first in a generation to care about what’s in the Democratic platform.

The week’s biggest story transcends politics. On Thursday the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in ACLU v. Clapper that the NSA’s massive metadata retrieval program --begun by Bush, then extended and concealed by Obama -- is illegal. In a biting 97-page opinion, the court said the government’s case "boils down to the proposition that essentially all telephone records are relevant to essentially all international terrorism investigations."

The court also noted that it was Edward Snowden who exposed all the warrantless spying. Snowden has since spent two years holed up in Russia, in effect blockaded by the U.S. government, which seeks his extradition to face criminal charges for his revelations. The decision should occasion some reflection on a curious case.

Snowden faces three felony counts and a possible 30-year prison sentence. Two of the charges were brought under the Espionage Act, an overly broad anachronism enacted in 1917 to catch World War I spies. In the 50 years prior to Obama, seven presidents filed a total of three cases under the act. One ended in dismissal, another in a pardon. Obama, who once called whistle-blowers “patriots” and “heroes,” has brought eight cases, mostly against whistle-blowers.

Obama speaks sparingly but icily of Snowden and would no doubt prosecute him to the full extent of the law. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, Snowden's in even bigger trouble. Clinton speaks of him with the unbecoming sarcasm she often falls into and either fails to grasp or purposefully distorts the case. To wit:

I have a hard time thinking somebody who is a champion of privacy and liberty has taken refuge in Russia under Putin's authority… when he absconded with all that material, I was puzzled… we have all these protections for whistleblowers… I don't understand why he couldn't have been part of the debate at home…

Snowden’s only right as a whistle-blower is to share his concerns with the people running the program, which he apparently did. He didn’t seek refuge in Russia. He got cornered in an airport there after we stripped him of his passport and leaned on other nations to deny his requests for asylum. If he came home he’d be placed, like Chelsea Manning, in strict insolation and allowed to debate no one other than his lawyer. Even at trial, the government would seek to deny him the right to explain the effect of his disclosures, cite the First Amendment or even use the word "whistle-blower."

People who engage in civil disobedience must answer for laws they break. Gandhi did. So did Martin Luther King. Snowden should neither seek nor expect softer treatment. Obama says Snowden hurt America. I’d like to know if it’s true. But whatever else one may think of him, Snowden is not by any reasonable definition a spy. He’s a whistle-blower.

I recall thinking during the Clinton impeachment that there ought to be a crime called obstruction of injustice, which would carry with it a lighter penalty, maybe even a small cash prize. While Snowden was surviving two Moscow winters, the reporter to whom he gave his scoop won a Pulitzer. The documentarian who made a film about it won an Oscar. James Clapper committed perjury to conceal the program but has nary a reprimand in his file. Congress knew all about it and kept mum, but now ponders a bill to reform it. If the bill passes, its sponsors will bathe in acclaim. Meanwhile, Snowden’s looking at 30 years.

Obama and Clinton have been given a chance to rethink their positions. I’m guessing Clinton will take a pass, but Obama could recast the debate. The government could charge Snowden with theft but not espionage, admit that a man who willingly returns home has a right to reasonable bail, and agree that at trial Snowden may assert his benefit to society, whistle-blower status and First Amendment rights. It’s a fair deal. Snowden would have to defend himself and the government would have to defend itself, while watching Snowden appear as guest of honor at the biggest fundraiser in the history of the ACLU.

The problem of secrecy extends far beyond national security. Talking about New York’s all too resistant strain of corruption, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara laid the blame on the “three men in a room syndrome.” He meant that in Albany, big issues are decided by the governor and the two top leaders, but he could have been meant politics anywhere in America.

In New Jersey, erstwhile Chris Christie backers say even if he didn’t know about Bridgegate, he created the bullying, rule-bending atmosphere that led his aides and appointees so far off track. Politicians often think the bubbles they inhabit are private and safe, and often they are. They think rules don’t apply to them and often they don’t.  With no one to say otherwise, they tell themselves the lavish favors they exchange are mere tokens of friendship.

One theme that unites Carson, Fiorina, Huckabee and every GOP contender but Jeb Bush is a cry for the people to rise up and take back the government from"‘the political class"’ By "the people," they mean themselves, of course, and by "political class" they mean Democrats. But if Obama’s 2008 race taught us anything it is that voters will hear what they want to hear. If no one offers them real reform, they’ll follow the loudest voice they hear.

Secrecy is as essential to corruption as it is to spying. Clinton’s penchant for secrecy in matters foreign and domestic endangers her and us. Cynics call transparency a ‘process’ issue and argue that voters don’t care about it. I say democracy is a process. Voters care deeply about it and hate to watch it devoured by corruption. It’s time for progressives to declare war on corruption. A war on corruption begins with a war on secrecy.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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