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.
It is America’s hidden consensus: a populist economics and a frugal, efficient and, above all, honest government. Can either party embrace it? Republicans will never embrace economic populism. But their base loves ‘frugal, efficient and honest’ and their elites are great at faking all three. Democrats face a tougher road. Their base loves populism and reform, but their elites love neoliberal economics and pay-to-play politics. Republicans think they have an edge on national security. If they can gin up enough fear they may be proved right. Right now you can watch them lay the groundwork for a campaign based on xenophobia and faux reform. It’s what Trump was up to this week at the Mexican border and on CNN.
I think reform is the key not just to the white working class but to the election. The Democrats must embrace it with specificity and sincerity, but so far they’ve barely mentioned it. It’s one thing to let the pope steal your thunder on climate change or even to let McDonald’s pull ahead of you on wages. But for Obama and Clinton to let Trump and Bush grab the pole position on reform is beyond the pale. This week they did just that.
Vacuous blowhard that he is, Trump didn’t propose any reforms on CNN. Some of Bush’s proposals came straight from Obama’s old playbook, including a revolving door bill and a requirement that public officials disclose meetings with lobbyists. For Bush even to speak of such things is odd. He spent his life out of office trying to monetize family connections. In a sense he made his living as Trump makes much of his, by licensing his name and loaning out those connections to others. For Trump it’s just tacky—before the Kardashians, there was the Donald—but for Bush it raises real issues. Making money off a guy who made money off a government you ran sure raises a few. So does taking a free 40 percent stake in a real estate deal and making money calls on a foreign government while your dad is president.
While Bush was peddling the personnel policy Obama promised, Democrats were paying a price for the one he delivered. Since taking office Obama has given ethics waivers to over 60 appointees. It feels as if every last one is in the news. Not long ago Marilyn Tavenner resigned as his Medicare and Medicaid czar. On July 15 she joined America’s Health Insurance Plans, the big health insurers’ lobby, as its CEO. She won’t lobby the government; she’ll just oversee everyone who does. Meanwhile Tavenner’s alleged successor is being savaged by critics left and right. Andy Slavitt, a former executive of United Health Group, America’s biggest health insurance carrier, will lead an agency that makes rules affecting billions of dollars of UHG business, but only if his nomination gets out of committee.
The Democrats’ worst news concerns their presidential frontrunner. It started with the revelation that Clinton has dispensed with Obama’s sole self-imposed rule aimed at lifting the ethics standards of political fundraising, his 2008 and 2012 bans on bundling by lobbyists. In just her first three months Clinton took in more than $2 million in bundled high-dollar donations. As always her people say other people don’t care and that it’s all small potatoes. But if Clinton’s campaign has taught us anything thus far, it’s that the little things have a way of adding up.
A Q poll this week showed her losing three more swing states, bringing to six the number of such states in which she trails Republicans. In Colorado, Virginia and Iowa her personal favorability ratings averaged 36 percent favorable to 54 percent unfavorable. The only candidate doing worse was the preposterous Trump, who at 33 percent to 59 percent did just slightly worse. An AP poll put her national favorability rating at 39 percent, a finding consistent with the Q poll. In every poll that poses the question, a majority of respondents say she is not honest.
Clinton supporters cite her lead in national pairings with Republicans and of course among Democratic primary voters. CNN analyst and Clinton loyalist Paul Begala downplayed her poor showing by once again reminding us that it’s a long way to the election. But we are slow to change our opinions of those we think we know well and voters know Clinton about as well as they’ll ever know a politician. Or at least think they do. The hardest numbers to move are negative numbers. Hardest of all are negatives that go to character. Where we will no doubt see some movement is in the horse race. Republicans have suffered a series of recent shocks, ranging from the Confederate flag controversy to Donald Trump. For a Democrat to nip Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio just now is no cause to celebrate.
On Friday the New York Times reported that government investigators had found classified information in Clinton’s private emails. The paper first said the inspectors general for the State Department and the intelligence community had asked the Justice Department to conduct a criminal probe. After a day that no doubt saw epic battles pitting Clinton’s agents and attorneys against those of the Justice and State Departments, the inspectors general and the Times, the Justice Department dropped the word ‘criminal’ -- though the Times reported that officials has made no decision as to whether to open a criminal investigation. As the Times also noted, mishandling classified information is a crime.
No one can know how this inquiry will end, but the possible outcomes range from the unpleasant to the disastrous. Clinton’s pursuers are mostly partisan hacks but this isn’t Darrell Issa shaming himself for another shot at the cameras. Inspectors general enjoy wide respect for their nonpartisan professionalism. They know what it means to bring a charge like this at a time like this. Right or wrong it’s a safe bet they weighed the evidence carefully.
As the brief bio at the end of each column I write discloses, I served as counselor to the president in the Clinton White House. I’ve seen Clinton up close. Unlike many of her critics, I think she manifests not only great empathy and intelligence but also personal integrity. I also believe that, like Anthony Kennedy, Barack Obama and your average Democratic political consultant, she fails to grasp either the intellectual bankruptcy of neoliberal economics or the moral bankruptcy of pay-to-play politics. Her evasive and insular style may prove her undoing. As in 2008, it contributes to her misreading of her historical moment. What she faces isn’t an insurrection of the Tea Party right or the Bernie Sanders left. It is a revolt of the middle class against a politics that breaks the heart of the nation.
The flaw in Clinton’s candidacy is the flaw in our politics. It is Kennedy’s ‘soft corruption.’ People don’t just care about it, they hate it. Clinton’s instinct, and that of many of her supporters, is to suppress the debate. They say a Republican victory in 2016 would be a catastrophe. I wholeheartedly agree, but the argument cuts both ways. The worst possible result would be for Clinton to be brought down in the general election. The time for full, fierce, open debate, perhaps the only time, is right now.
Bernie Sanders’ remarkable campaign continues to shed the most light on issues and offer the country the most hope. His continued success is essential. But even he has a ways to go on government reform, which is more than just campaign finance reform. He may force the Democrats to embrace real change and even lead them to victory, but everybody needs to be lobbied
Rasmussen and Greenberg aren’t alone any more. People on the right and left in Washington and all across the country are starting to focus in on the issue of public integrity. For years, groups like Public Citizen and Common Cause have fought the good fight. It is time now for all who see how high the stakes are to lead a grass-roots movement to mobilize public opinion and bring public pressure to bear. The politicians are too addicted to the money to ever get sober on their own.