Here's how Bernie Sanders could win: The one issue where Hillary's vulnerable, and where the Tea Party might be right

If progressives want to retake government, a full-throated war on public corruption is the key to everything

Published June 14, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Photo montage by Salon)

After one of many trips to sub-Saharan Africa, Bono recalled that on his first visit there he thought its biggest problem was AIDS. Later, it seemed it was poverty; after many visits over many years he at last saw that it was corruption: the problem that kept all other problems from ever being solved.

Corruption is hard to unmask, and harder to measure, but we know its cost to Africa is truly staggering. One study puts it at a quarter of the continent’s total GDP, itself a paltry 2.4 percent of world GDP. Another says it slashes growth by 20 percent every year. It was long hoped that the sale of Africa’s vast trove of natural resources would generate the investment capital necessary to move its people out of poverty and into the modern age. Instead, the money is siphoned off by corrupt elites who blow it on lavish lifestyles, park it in Swiss banks or invest it in high-end Paris or London real estate. It’s the world’s most common form of treason and goes largely unpunished.

We live amidst a global pandemic of corruption. It ravages Asia, Latin America and the Middle East and devours Africa. It was the issue at the heart of every uprising of the Arab Spring. It has spurred riots in India and Brazil, struck fear into the hearts of China’s leaders and contributed mightily to the warping of Russia’s politics as well as its economy. It tops liberal agendas everywhere in the world -- everywhere, that is, but here.

America has not had a full-throated debate of political corruption since Watergate. In that scandal’s immediate aftermath Congress enacted sweeping campaign finance reforms (struck down by the Supreme Court in its vile Buckley v. Valeo decision). In the mid ’70s, states passed a flurry of reforms, establishing what were often their first ethics, campaign finance and freedom-of-information commissions. But politicians have chipped away at those reforms ever since. Few commissions have anything like adequate enforcement staff. Most states lack the civic self-respect to enforce their ethics laws, preferring to leave the job to overburdened federal prosecutors.

Some say the reason our politicians talk less about corruption is that we have less of it, but it’s a hard point to prove. How much money do we lose to corruption each year? Our government goes out of its way not to know. All major retailers itemize "inventory shrinkage" in their annual reports; 2013 losses were pegged at $37 billion. No public-sector budget itemizes the cost of corruption, but here’s a safe bet: America loses more to corruption than to shoplifting.

Some say voters don’t care about ethics. Political consultants tell their clients that nobody cares except old "goo-goos" -- good government types — and even they don’t care much. It’s just a "process issue," they say; too abstract, too far removed from people’s lives to matter. For the consultants who pocket millions from corporate and political clients alike, it’s a convenient theory, but it’s a lie, proven to be such again and again by election results and, yes, even by polling data.

Every election year major news organizations conduct nationwide exit polls to ask, among other things, what issues brought voters out. Ethics is never even on the list. In 2009 and 2010 pollster Scott Rasmussen posed the same question but included "government ethics and corruption" as a possible response. Both times over 80 percent of voters called it very important and both times it topped the list, edging out even the economy -- this in the teeth of a protracted recession.

This week the Times released a poll on money in politics. Eighty-five percent of respondents said the system needs “fundamental change” or even to be “completely rebuilt.” Eighty-five percent said politicians do their donors’ bidding some or all of the time. Seventy-eight percent want to limit spending by independent groups. Seventy-five percent would require disclosure of donations to any entity engaged in politics. Just 23 percent said all Americans have an equal voice in their democracy. And here’s an interesting fact: On every question, it seems Democrats and Republicans felt pretty much the same.

Our government is so corrupt it is odious even in the eyes of patriots. In a Gallup poll measuring reputations of professions, nurses finished first; 80 percent judged their integrity to be high. Members of Congress finished last at 7 percent, a full 14 percent behind lawyers. Even these numbers don’t capture the depth of public anger. If the anger turns to cynicism millions will walk away from politics. Millions already have. If it finds a voice we may have an Arab Spring of our own, maybe as soon as 2016. If so, the less-prepared party will be blown away. As things stand now, that would be the Democrats.

Republicans are by nature better at ginning up anger, but lately it’s as if they had the patent on it. Progressives were first to oppose the 2008 Wall Street bailout. The first protest was hosted by TrueMajority, a liberal advocacy group founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame. But by 2009 Obama owned the bailout and word went out that to attack it would only undercut him. Enter the Tea Party, amidst cries of "crony capitalism," to tap the rich vein of public anger. For the first time, economic populism was the property of conservatives. It was some gift.

Of course, Republicans don’t really want to fix the government; they want to kill it. The only corruption they really oppose is when some business that gave to Obama gets a federal contract. But they do have a nose for the issue. And since the decline of the religious right they’ve been looking hard for other hornets’ nests to poke. Thus Rick Santorum in his recent announcement speech mentioned abortion only twice, while referencing corruption and moneyed interests 10 times.

In his announcement, George Pataki proposed a list of reforms. The first was a revolving-door law to stop members of Congress from cashing in as lobbyists. It was the first ethics reform proposed by a presidential candidate of either party. It won’t be the last. Even when they don’t propose any reforms, Republicans express the anger voters feel. If Democrats don’t propose some reasonable reforms, voters will go with whoever does the best job of sounding as mad as they feel.

As for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton may not be the worst person to fly the reform flag, but then again, she might be. Her first problem is her past. If the Clintons didn’t invent pay-to-play politics, with such minions as Rahm Emanuel and Terry McAuliffe in tow, they came close to perfecting it. Her second problem is her present: her special way of handling her email; the alleged conflicts of interest over at the Clinton Foundation; the pricey speeches she gave and Bill still insists on giving. Her third problem is how she handles questions about it all: her defensive tone; her far-too-clever syntactical evasions; her insistence on being praised even as she stumbles; and, yes, her seeming sense of entitlement.

In a June 2 Gallup poll, 57 percent of respondents said Hillary is not "honest or trustworthy." In a Public Policy Polling survey of Ohio voters this week, she led Ted Cruz by a point and was tied with Marco Rubio. The first poll explains the others. This week, Bill Clinton said he'll stop giving $500,000 speeches if she becomes president. Yesterday, Hillary went to New York City to deliver a populist-themed speech. Neither Clinton has a clue about the depth of public anger over watching big-money interests treat government as their personal toy. If Clinton loses the nomination or the general election, this will be the reason why.

Bernie Sanders does a far better job on the issue, but even he doesn’t quite nail it. Like Clinton, he says his Supreme Court appointees must commit to overturn Citizens United. He said it first, but every Democrat says it now and it feels like a dodge. Overturning Citizens United, whether by judicial review or constitutional amendment, is a highly conjectural remedy. A president could serve two terms and not get to replace a single Republican Supreme Court justice, and hell will freeze over before a 38th state ratifies a constitutional amendment.

Democrats speak of Citizens United as if overturning it would restore a golden age of ethics; as if its mere existence excuses all the bad bargains they strike with the rich and powerful; as if it proved that where corruption is concerned, they are only victims, never culprits. Government was corrupt before Citizens United was filed and will have to be cleaned up before it’s overturned. Voters want to hear some practical ideas about how to do it up--but so far Democrats don’t have any.

The sight of any Democrat raising billions while offering vague assurances of future reform won’t satisfy anyone and comes at a high opportunity cost. Jeb Bush has possibly been breaking at least two major campaign finance laws all year. Democrats can’t call him to account because they do the same thing. How much money must they raise to recoup the expense of ceding the high moral ground?

One reason Democrats can’t talk about corruption is that it’s as much in their nature to defend government as it is in the Republicans’ nature to attack it. The idea that government may be rotten at its core is alien to them. Two of Clinton’s declared Democratic opponents, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee, attack her ethics, but the only reform either proposes is to pick him over her. Neither seems able to frame the issue properly. Democrats just aren’t very good at it.

Another reason Democrats can’t talk about corruption is that they deny both its extent and their complicity in it. In Citizens United, Justice Kennedy "found" that government has no stake in "soft corruption"--the billions spent on lobbying and elections--because, he says, it does no harm and people don’t seem to mind it. There was no evidence in the pleadings to support his finding because none exists. It’s a statement of a sacred tenet of the establishment creed, that the powerful can exchange endless favors without injury to ethics, reason or the public interest. It’s the big lie that holds the whole corrupt enterprise together. When he told it, Kennedy wasn’t speaking for the radical right. He was speaking for the center.

Kennedy recognizes government’s stake in curbing "hard corruption," meaning the bribery that occurs when a politician puts the money in his pocket rather than his campaign or agrees to an explicit quid pro quo, preferably on tape or in an email. But when everyone knows the rules of the game, there’s no need for post-it notes or idle chit-chat: one guy pledges cash, another expresses vague but heartfelt thanks, saying nothing of tangible reward, leaving little in the way of tangible evidence. Everybody gets home safe. Thus the law rewards the subtle rather than the good.

The false dichotomy between hard and soft corruption isn’t just in Citizens United; it’s everywhere. It’s why the New York Times made a deal with the GOP hatchet man who penned the borderline libelous "Clinton Cash" to explore its dubious leads. It’s why O’Malley and Chafee say so much about Clinton but so little about the system itself. I care less about whether Clinton put her staff on a foundation payroll than I do about the billions she’ll raise and the vital reform she’ll foreswear to do it. To get real change we have to pierce everyone’s denial, not just hers.

Last week O’Malley blasted Clinton for her ties to Goldman Sachs while signing off on an "independent" PAC of his own. Maybe he thinks his cookie-cutter critique of Citizens United will keep the public from noticing the hypocrisy. I bet it won’t. Of all the candidates running in both parties, only Bernie Sanders has said he won’t set one up, or signal some close confidant to do it when he isn’t looking.

Bush denies he’s a candidate to skirt laws that limit contributions to candidates. Clinton attends fundraisers for her "independent" PAC but leaves before the pitch so as to appear to obey laws that forbid her campaign and her PAC from working together. It’s sad to see them flout the few laws left on the books that seek to curb corruption. But it would be just as sad to see them follow the law to the letter and rake in as much cash with only a bit more work. It’s not just one case that needs overturning, it’s the whole system. Everyone knows it except the ones in charge.

America isn’t Africa. There every injustice stands out as if etched in bas-relief. Here it’s harder to see how political corruption leads to income inequality, global warming and other man-made disasters. Political elites, including elite Democrats, deny what most average folks have long known, that the new global economy runs not on innovation but on corruption. Without the ties that bind politicians to their donors, wages would be harder to restrain, the air would be harder to pollute, social contracts would be harder to shred. If you don’t believe it just ask Bono, or Buhari or your next-door neighbor. Our real enemy is corruption.

A storm’s brewing, but if Democrats feel the barometric pressure dropping they do a good job of hiding it. As the party of government they pay the price for our revulsion at its condition. Voters now espouse liberal views on most big issues: climate change; income inequality; immigration; same sex marriage; gun control; prison reform; foreign interventions. Yet Republicans run Congress and the 2016 race is a dead heat. How can it be? One answer: the government’s broken and Democrats can’t or won’t fix it. Republicans won’t either, but then they don’t plan to use it.

On the issue of corruption, Clinton’s the most vulnerable of all the candidates. She should take steps to shore up her position. For starters, she and Bill should stop trying to justify their seeming obsession with their personal finances. (“When we left the White House we were broke”; “I gotta pay the bills”, etc.) Since 2001 they’ve earned $125 million. Enough is enough. Cancel the pricey speeches or talk for free. Rid the foundation of any hint of a conflict. Ethical behavior begins in the assumption of personal responsibility. Show us you know it.

I doubt she will. She should embrace real ethics reform, but I doubt she’ll do that either. Her campaign model is a perfect match for her neoliberal worldview and it’s all she knows. It’s true of nearly every top Democrat, Sanders being a rare exception. If he wins a few rounds with low-dollar fundraising and grass-roots organizing, it’ll shake conventional political wisdom as nothing has in a long time. But Democrats will resist reform to the bitter end and he can’t subdue them all by himself.

The only way to put ethics where it belongs, at the center of the political debate, is for progressives to mount a full-bore, grass-roots anti-corruption campaign. It isn’t a task they often take on, perhaps because the issue is something of an ideological outlier. To some, it’s an issue for the judicial branch. Like Bono, many liberals fail at first to see its connection to other fundamental issues of the distribution of wealth, income, opportunity and power. But that’s starting to change.

There are many questions of strategy and policy. One thing that’s clear is the need to pivot from the question of how we fund campaigns to that of how we run government. The former issues require long constitutional battles and are hard to explain. The latter are easily attainable and understood. In 2008 Obama made government ethics reforms the centerpiece of his campaign. The ones he promised were concrete and specific. Most could be implemented by executive order. By the late fall his reform agenda was his biggest applause line, delivered at the end of each speech to bring a crowd to its feet.

In office, he did little of it, though all of it was within his discretion. Among his unkept vows: no hiring of lobbyists; opening up "back rooms," including a pledge to let C-SPAN cameras film health care negotiations; a public register of visits by donors or lobbyists (delayed three years, never fully implemented); procurement reform; protection of whistleblowers; expanded transparency; vigorous prosecution of public and private corruption. Add to it a reform of rules governing classified secrets and a revolving-door bill covering not just members of Congress but their staffs and executive branch appointees and you’re off to a strong start.

Whoever made these promises would have to mean it. But that’s where a strong, grass-roots movement comes in: to educate and mobilize the public and thus to hold politicians to account. Leaders of such movements take instruction from none but their conscience and their base. The time to draft a platform is now. By late fall, activists could be out presenting candidates for president, Senate and Congress with pledges to sign. Many candidates won’t grasp the politics or the policy. But we can educate them and perhaps save them from themselves. It may seem a long shot but this we know for sure: it’s the only way reform will ever come.

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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