"It's the corruption, stupid": Hillary's too compromised to see what Donald Trump understands

The key 2016 issue is outrage over a rigged system by special interests. There's a reason Hillary doesn't get it

Published February 23, 2016 11:00AM (EST)

Hillary Clinton   (AP/Matt Rourke)
Hillary Clinton (AP/Matt Rourke)

In 1992, James Carville, Bill Clinton’s senior campaign strategist, scribbled a terse memo containing three instructions. Two are long forgotten. The third may live forever. "It’s the economy, stupid" became a meme because it nailed the issue that drove that election. One overarching issue drives this election, but neither Hillary Clinton’s campaign nor the Democratic Party got the memo. Any swing voter could tell them what it says: It’s the corruption, stupid.

Donald Trump got the memo. What you notice first about Trump is his xenophobia, but he also speaks more about corruption than immigration. For example: when he falsely claims to self-fund his campaign, blames Bush’s donors when he gets booed, shames his opponents for crooking the knee to the Kochs, or belittles the Clintons for attending his wedding. He brags of buying influence as if buying it were less corrupt than selling it. He gets away with it because few in the press see the issue’s centrality to the race -- or would know what questions to ask if they did.

Deep in their unconscious, even Trump’s most ardent fans must know that such a colossal liar couldn’t possibly be a reformer. Asked to explain their enthusiasm, they invariably cite his independence. Doubtless many are also drawn to his racism -- but corruption is what Trump and his backers talk most about. In any event, the only real reformer in the race is Bernie Sanders. Even he must broaden his message beyond cracking down on Wall Street and repealing Citizens United. All Democratic candidates call for repealing Citizens United. Democratic audiences cheer when they do. Other audiences doze off, and for good reasons.

One reason is that people don’t know what they mean. If you talk about Citizens United or Glass Steagallyou must tell us what they are. The key to campaign finance is discussing how much money flows into the system, where it comes from and how it’s spent. For financial regulation, talk about how without it, banks can bet their depositors' money -- and if they lose big enough, even with Dodd Frank, we taxpayers end up bailing them out.

Another reason is that Democrats who bewail Citizens United so often depict corruption as a right-wing plot of which they themselves are mere victims. Not even the base buys that. Citizens United arrived in 2010. Pay-to-play politics took off in the mid-'70s, right about the time the middle class stopped getting raises. The sad truth is elite Democrats like the current system a lot. Here’s a well-guarded secret: They even see a lot to like in Citizens United

Poorly written and atrociously reasoned, Citizens United rests on three simple, absurd precepts: Money is speech; corporations are people; and corruption is OK so long as it is sanctioned. OK, the third one isn’t so simple, but it sure is absurd. It pertains to what Justice Kennedy, the opinion’s author, calls "soft" corruption, by which he means the entire system: big donors, lobbyists, lush retreats, revolving doors, exorbitant speaking fees. The whole shebang.

Kennedy says that unlike "hard" corruption (bribery, mainly), "soft" corruption harms and offends no one, so Congress can’t regulate it. The issue hadn’t come up at trial, so there was nothing about it in pleadings. There’s tons of data about how evil it is and how much we hate it, but Kennedy ignored it. He offered no proof to support his "finding." He just said it was so and now it’s the law.

I’d rate Citizens United the second most corrupt decision in Supreme Court history after Bush v. GoreBlind partisanship drove Bush v. Gore. Right-wing ideology informs both decisions. But Citizens United’s key findings, that our politics isn’t really corrupt and we don’t care anyway, is neither partisan nor extreme. It is in fact the bipartisan consensus of Washington’s soul-sick, brain-dead establishment.

If you doubt it, consider Barack Obama. In 2008, America was almost as angry at its government as it is today. Then as now, the media and political consultants to both parties were blind to the issue. But Obama and strategist David Axelrod sort of got it. Axelrod wasn’t much for specificity. He preached the "politics of biography" (sell the person, not the policy). So Obama spoke of transforming "Washington’s culture." It was powerful stuff, but not quite powerful enough.

Voters knew the problem wasn’t "partisan gridlock" but a hammerlock of special interests. They could abide politicians’ incivility but not their corruption. Obama added some policy meat to the metaphorical bone of his message. He called whistle-blowers heroes and vowed to strengthen freedom of information, to let C-SPAN cameras film healthcare negotiations, end no-bid contracts, close revolving doors and never hire lobbyists to handle matters of special concern to their ex-clients. By late fall, nearly every speech he gave ended in a rousing call for reform.

Breaking those vows was the original sin of the Obama administration. No C-SPAN cameras ever filmed a meeting. He didn’t treat whistle-blowers as heroes; he broke records prosecuting them. He didn’t end no-bid contracts; he increased them. He didn’t ban lobbyists; he recruited them. (Healthcare industry consultants drove that team; he even hired a defense lobbyist to oversee Pentagon procurement policy.) Revolving doors kept swinging; every ex-Obama staffer you ever heard of now sits on some comfy corporate perch.  Republicans didn’t kill the reforms. Obama had the power to implement each one by executive order, but chose not to.

In 2008, Obama raised more money from big business than any candidate in either party’s history and in 2009 he hired the most conservative economic team of any Democratic president since Grover Cleveland. He then sided with insurers against a public option, with banks against rescuing homeowners and with business against raising the minimum wage. If you’re highly educated and care more about cultural than economic issues, you may not have noticed. If you’re financially pressed, you may be torn between Sanders and Trump, or have given up on politics altogether.

Clinton calls it an "artful smear" to suggest that she, Obama or any Democrat is influenced by the money they say corrupts every Republican. Her anger is partly a pose. But any card-carrying member of the establishment will take any suggestion that the system is compromised as a personal insult. This is true of elite reporters as well as politicians.

The Times' David Brooks recently praised Obama’s “superior integrity,” calling his years in office “remarkably scandal free.” It’s all true, but recall Anthony Kennedy’s clueless distinction between hard and soft corruption. He said soft corruption was better but it’s worse really. Soft corruption is systemic corruption; a cancer on the body politic. We kill it or it kills us, and sooner than you may think.

Asked about her Goldman Sachs speaking fees, Hillary offered two rationales. One was the perennial favorite "everyone does it." The other was equally flippant. (“That’s what they offered.”) Since leaving the White House she and Bill have hauled in $153 million in speaking fees. Her deepest flaw is she doesn’t know it’s wrong. As I’ve written twice here and said often elsewhere, I’ve great respect for her. Her flaw is denial, not dishonesty -- but her denial runs deep.

Back when Bill was governor of Arkansas, she began trading cattle futures. She put up hardly any money but a Tyson Foods lawyer arranged credit and did the trading. She made $100,000 in 10 months. She joined the well-wired Rose Law Firm, appeared before legislative committees, went on Wal-Mart’s board and got a loan for the ill-fated Whitewater deal from a bank she represented before regulators Bill had appointed.

For all this she was hounded by prosecutors, many of them vicious partisans. Kenneth Starr ran a sting operation on the president of the United States hoping he’d lie if caught in an affair, an abuse of process for which Starr himself should have been investigated. But the issue isn’t whether the Clintons broke the law. It’s whether any governor’s spouse should rep corporate clients before state agencies, hop on corporate boards or take favors from corporate "friends." The answer’s simple. No. The reason’s also simple. It’s wrong.

It’s all ancient history, unless of course it isn’t. An ongoing FBI probe is now being overseen by James Comey, the former George W. Bush deputy attorney general whom Obama, inexplicably, appointed director of the bureau. Here’s hoping he wraps it up soon, lest Clinton make history not only as the first woman presidential nominee but as the first person ever nominated while under criminal investigation. The media’s near silence on the matter reflects a concern for due process but also a failure even now to grasp how heavily the integrity issue weighs on her candidacy and the election. Democratic elites await the outcome with preternatural calm.

Clinton bristles at any implication she’d ever stoop to a policy quid pro quo. I don’t think she would. But that’s not how soft corruption works. Politicians spend more time talking to their donors than to their children. As in all intimate relations, each learns to see the world through the other’s eyes. It affects everyone: pollsters, policy advisers, reporters, pundits. You can hear it in the current healthcare debate.

On the topic of single payer, Clinton sounds like Dan Aykroyd in "Ghostbusters" (Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!). Bill calls it a “fairy tale.” Hillary rails, “I don't want us thrown back into a terrible, terrible national debate … about some ‘better idea’ that will never, ever come to pass!” Alleged experts regurgitate Clinton campaign talking points: It’s unattainable, unaffordable and scares voters half to death.

Rubbish. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, respondents backed "Medicare for all" by 58 percent to 34 percent. One reason people like it is that it will save them a bundle. All other developed nations use a form of it and spend half what we do per capita. As for the politics, no Republican Congress will pass any Democratic healthcare bill and no Democratic Congress can resist an aroused public demanding change. The very idea of the debate being too disruptive insults our democracy.

Clinton likes to say “before it was Obamacare it was Hillarycare,” but really it was Romneycare, which speaks to its defects, many of which are systemic. Curing them requires other systemic reforms, or what Bernie calls a revolution. Clinton says she’ll "partner" with the insurance and drug industries. That’s a fairy tale. The numbers will never work, which is why she can’t say how she’d get us to universal coverage. What she’s really saying is we can’t get there from here. It’s like American Exceptionalism but in reverse; America, the really big country that can’t.

Clinton knows she can’t convince a trade unionist or a single mother that her neoliberal world order is better for them than Bernie’s revolution so she avoids side by side policy comparisons and paints him as the "other." In Nevada it worked. She accused him of being disloyal; he cited the times he was loyal or spoke loftily of his right to dissent. He might have said loyalty to principle meant as much to him as party loyalty did to her, that he loves Obama too but that it’s time to give all people decent healthcare and a living wage; to break up the big banks and clean up the corrupt politics they feed on. He didn’t say it. He needs to say it soon.

The soft corruption of establishment politics is what we mean when we say the system’s rigged. It is Sanders' great advantage; on the overarching issue of the election he alone among all the candidates wants what we want: an end to politics as we know it. The best place for him to start is with Obama’s 2008 reform agenda; an end to back rooms revolving doors and no-bid contracts, to hiring lobbyists and persecuting whistle-blowers. No one could question the agenda’s popularity or his ability, once in office, to deliver it. He wouldn’t need a new Court or Congress. He could just order it done. Nor could anyone question his loyalty, at least not out loud. He’d be keeping the biggest promise Obama ever made.

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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