Over the past two months, we’ve seen both the best and worst in our politics. On the one hand, we’ve seen America smash racial barriers and prove global naysayers wrong, John McCain concede gracefully, and Barack Obama put together a flawless transition. On the other hand, we’ve had Senator Ted Stevens convicted of seven felonies, Governor Rod Blagojevich indicted on dozens of various nefarious schemes, various corruption charges made against powerful House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, and the long-awaited defeat of New Orleans Rep. William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson.
It’s sad, but over the last four years or so, corruption in our national politics has been almost routine. The difference between the current stretch and its long run-up? After years of Republican indictments and convictions, four of the five names listed above are Democrats.
I’ve had numerous Republican friends in both Idaho and New Hampshire insist to me that Democrats are more corrupt than Republicans, and that it only seems different because prosecutors and journalists are biased. And of course, we’ve all heard the Democratic Party’s official mantra that the Republican Party fosters a “culture of corruption.” Both arguments are horse hockey. I don’t believe for an instant that a person’s views on health care or climate change have anything to do with their personal ethics. Democrats say Republicans are corrupt because of their ties to business, but that affects both parties. Republicans say Democrats are corrupt because they don’t care for personal responsibility, but we do, we just think some social achievements are beyond the reach of the individual. The real reason for political corruption is nonpartisan: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Over the past several years, Republicans have controlled almost all levels of power, and so they have also controlled almost all levels of corruption. It’s a veritable laundry list: Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, and Vito Fossella convicted, Tom DeLay indicted, Don Young and John Doolittle investigated, and Don Sherwood and Mark Foley dinking around – and that’s just the House of Representatives. The Senate featured Ted Stevens and Larry Craig convicted and David Vitter hanging out with prostitutes. In the Administration, Scooter Libby and David Safavian were convicted and Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzalez, and a host of Gonzalez’s Justice Dept. aides were investigated. Oh, and let’s not forget Governors George Ryan and Bob Taft. The Democrats’ reply? One Congressman indicted (Jefferson) and one more investigated (Alan Mollohan). When NBC’s Matt Lauer interviewed DeLay in 2006 and asked him about Republican corruption, DeLay tried to insist there were just as many bad Democrats as there were Republicans, but after naming Jefferson and Mollohan, he had to go back decades to come up with an equal amount of examples. He also neglected to point out that none of these Democrats were in leadership positions like his own, and that while Republicans instantly rallied around him during their investigations, Democrats were quick to turn against Jefferson (and now, in under a week, have literally all turned against Blagojevich.)
Yet there is some truth to DeLay’s point – not for 2006, but for history. It’s ridiculous to suggest that the weak Democrats of 2000-2006 were as corrupt as the powerful Republicans of that same era, but indeed, the powerful Democrats of the 1980s were as corrupt as the powerful Republicans of the 2000s. Gerry Studds’ page scandal, the Keating Five (John McCain and four Democrats), the Abscam sting, several Congressmen convicted of bribery and racketeering, and Speaker Jim Wright’s speaking fees all come to mind. Again: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Now that Republicans have little legislative and no executive power at the national level, methinks we will see the number of opportunities for them to become corrupt dwindle while the number of Democrats giving into the suddenly-available sleaze skyrockets.
For six years, the Republicans in Congress refused to investigate themselves. Speaker Denny Hastert put a virtual moratorium on ethics investigations, and nothing was done until Democrats won and put Pat Leahy in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Henry Waxman in charge of House Oversight. Bulldog Waxman’s now moving to Energy and Commerce, which is thrilling, but I do hope that his replacement, Edolphus Towns, is just as aggressive at investigating Democrats as Waxman was at Republicans. I doubt it, but we’ll need it.
Not all powerful politicians are corrupt. Henry Kissinger once said that corrupt politicians give the other 10% a bad name. It’s funny, but having spent time in DC, I think it’s fair to say that while most big-name pols are out of touch, they’re also mostly good men and women. I trust Democrats like Joe Biden and Russ Feingold, and Republicans like Chuck Hagel and Arlen Specter. The new head honcho of them all, Barack Obama, hasn’t been around DC long enough to be tainted by power (although hey, Chicago is Chicago), and I think he’s the real deal. I even think George W. Bush is a good guy. He is an incompetent, arrogant buffoon who keeps his blinders on to be sure, but while many of the people who surround him are as corrupt as all get out, those blinders keep from seeing it, and what he can’t say can’t affect him.
That said, though, DC is a whole ‘nother universe. The marble urinal separators in the Senate bathrooms give one a skewed view of economics; the security barriers on every Hill street corner paint a different picture of terrorism than most Americans face; and the three Capitol Hill papers and Washington Post all cover different stories than do most small-town papers. It’s easy to lose your head where federal politics are concerned, as Blagojevich, Rangel, and Jefferson all show. Keeping that mind, I hope Democrats will police themselves in the future as well as they have policed Republicans in the past.