Thursday, December 11, 2008

They All Stink
My earliest memory regarding politics is of my grandfather talking about his approach to voting, probably around 1981 or so. Pop said (I'm paraphrasing): "I vote for whoever's out of office in every election, and after they steal enough, I vote them out the next time."

One could attribute the cynicism to the times: this was about a decade after the worst excesses of Nixonian corruption (reviewed, in much greater detail than Watergate, in Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland," probably my favorite book of 2008), and just a few years after Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo failed a lie-detector test and a score of pols were busted in Abscam. But little in public life over the nearly three decades since has suggested that he had it wrong. What I imagine many on the left are now realizing, hopefully to their chagrin and maybe even to the point of gaining some wisdom, is that Democrats aren't really any more immune to the temptations of power than are Republicans, whose seemingly systemic excesses helped cost the party their Congressional majorities two years ago.

Actually, at least there was something innovative and creative about Republican corruption in the days of DeLay and Abramoff. The current Democratic scandals, the most spectacular of which concerns Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich but the more concerning of which is probably the swirl of issues around House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, are age-old stories about arrogance, narcissism, cupidity and stupidity.

Also interesting, and saddening, is the difference in response to these two Democratic officials. President-elect Obama, every Democratic Senator, and any editorial board type who's been awake in the last 72 hours or so have called on Blagojevich--who was already detested in Illinois, with a single-digit approval rating--to resign. The Rangel suite of scandals has drawn nary a whisper, to my knowledge, at least among Democrats. (To their credit, the NYT editorial board called today for Democratic leaders to strip Rangel of his chairmanship, at least during the investigation.)

I don't expect anything resembling political courage from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her large Democratic majority, however; much more likely is that Pelosi, who is well on the way to becoming the most powerful Speaker in a half-century or more, will lean on the House Ethics Committee to exonerate Rangel and get on to business as usual. And why not? There's no chance the 78 year-old could lose his seat in Harlem, and any strong discipline would only rile up the Congressional Black Caucus--which supported even the bribe-taking Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, who was caught with $90,000 in cash hidden in his freezer. (Happily, Jefferson lost a low-turnout special election last weekend, putting a Republican in one of the country's most Democratic districts.)

Rangel's alleged offenses all show the arrogance of entrenched power. He's been in office for 20 terms; he's getting toward the end of his career, obviously, and he's looking to "cement his legacy" by raising the current and future profile of the Rangel Center for Public Service at City College. And he probably figures that, after nearly four decades of making less money than he could have outside of public life, he shouldn't have to pay taxes on his rental income from the beach house in the Dominican Republic or be obligated to follow the tiniest letter of the law concerning the use of those rent-stabilized apartments he controls in Harlem (which I'm sure are worth vastly more now than they were whenever he acquired their use). Pretty much the exact same set of motivations were present fifteen years ago, when his predecessor in the Ways and Means chairmanship, Dan Rostenkowski, was busted for similar small-bore scandals. (Irony alert: Rostenkowski, like Jefferson last weekend, was defeated in his generally safe Democratic district by a Republican in 1994. Two years later, the Democrats took the seat back. The winning candidate: Rod Blagojevich!)

What's sad here is that Pelosi and other senior Democrats, certainly including Rangel himself, have been around long enough to remember what the perception of corruption did to them in 1994, as well as how it swept them back into power twelve years later. But the imperative to avoid a political fight in the short term evidently is stronger than the concern that two years from now--when it's likely the economy will remain stuck in the mud and historical trends suggest a likely beating for the party of the incumbent president--they'll suffer for this toleration of avarice and arrogance.

Perhaps worse is that looking the other way while Rangel and others transgress against ethical standers undermines the larger progressive mission in this period of history: to rehabilitate the good name of government. Republican corruption was in some sense much more understandable: they saw (and see) the public sector as a whore, so violating her for personal gain was no big deal. Corruption even could be said to serve a larger right-wing end of maintaining the low reputation of government. The Democrats, though, are supposed to view government as a tool to serve the public interest. To sell that vision, government must be both competent and ethical. It's hard enough to reform health care, fix education, and put the country on a course toward environmental sustainability without constant accusations that actions to do these things will have the side effect of personal enrichment for those in office; if that sense takes root, the progressive project in the years to come will falter as badly as it has in the recent past.


Chris said...

I will try my damnedest to connect this to Obama.

The Navigator said...

Chris, just tune that dial to Fox and I believe the connection will be fair and balanced right at ya, right around the Sean Hannity comes on.

I do wonder sometimes if ethics is just a matter of diligence, or if it's more like campaign finance, in that the corruption will just work its way in and around whatever rules or codes of conduct you try to draw up. I've sometimes had this dream that the Dem leadership draws up a checklist of all the potentially bad things members could be doing, and insists that all members swear with a notarized signature that they're not doing those things. But then I think, inevitably they'd leave out lots of ways to betray the public trust; you just can't think of everything. It still might be worthwhile making the effort, though.