Criminality in government, cronyism, access purchased by special interest money — these were ills which the new politics of then-candidate Barack Obama were supposed to cure. But these very things have become an epidemic of sorts, even after the election of the Agent of Change.
While much of the scandalous conduct which is now making headlines preceded Obama’s election, not all of it did. And he doesn’t seem terribly moved to do much about it now that it has come to light. As a result, one can sense a wave of disappointment lapping up on the political shore. A sense of queasiness is settling in that hope for an end of business as usual is nothing more than a pipe dream. Once again, it seems that ethical conduct and reform will take a back seat to party politics. Rather than New Politics we have an epidemic of indifference to corruption.
Let’s take the Bernard Madoff scam. Billions were lost by unwary and excessively trusting investors. The storyline perpetrated by the MSM has been that this is further evidence of the deregulation craze for which they hold the Bush administration responsible. Perhaps. But perhaps it something far worse. Madoff was a major Democratic donor, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to powerful Democrats who were in a position to potentially regulate his business or uncover his crimes. But there has been no call for an investigation into whether the SEC was ever called off the chase by the Democrats who sat in oversight roles — and received Madoff’s campaign cash.
Which comes to an interesting phenomenon: we haven’t seen the ordinarily omnipresent Senator Chuck Schumer lately. He made headlines in the New York Times for his sweetheart relationship with the financial institutions which were subject to regulation and legislation that came before his committees. They gave boatloads of money to him and his Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. He took the money and made clear to all who would listen (and who would tell their generous friends) that he would go easy on regulation and investigation. Now, Madoff was a top Schumer and DSSC donor. Did he and Schumer ever meet? Were there discussions about Madoff’s operation? Was Schumer aware of the SEC investigation? We don’t yet know.
It is odd indeed that the usual camera-craven Schumer has not been out calling for a full investigation and explanation for how Madoff got away with his scheme for so long. Why isn’t he popping up on the Sunday talk shows, as is his custom, to demand that one of his Senate committees get the bottom of this? It might be that for once Schumer would like to be forgotten. When he does reappear, some enterprising reporter might ask about any contacts he had with Madoff — or on behalf of Madoff.
Meanwhile, the President-elect has been rather mum on the topic of Madoff’s political influence. It would seem, if he really is the reformer he promised us he would be, that he would demand a full accounting of what, if anything, Madoff’s hundreds of thousands of dollars and robust lobbying effort got him. If Congress won’t do it, a special prosecutor should. What did Madoff lobby for, what did he get, and what enforcement actions, if any, did he stave off through his campaign largess? After all, this is supposed to be the era of New Politics. The near-silence from the president-elect is deafening so far.
And then there is the unfilled Senate seat in Illinois. The Illinois Democrats are caught in a bind. Blago (quoting Kipling) won’t quit, the impeachment proceedings will drag on, and the Democratic state legislature put the kibosh on a special election, because heaven forbid, a Republican might win. The Washington Post and other MSM outlets have called for a special election. What do we hear from the president-elect? Nothing. Once again, it’s the politics of party bosses, even at the price of denying full representation to Illinois voters.
Next there is Charlie Rangel, a serial tax and ethics offender who sits atop the House Ways and Means Committee. An ethics investigation is underway, but there has been no move to have him step down even temporarily while it is determined whether he violated tax laws and Congressional ethics rules. Nancy Pelosi seems paralyzed with fear of offending a powerful committee chair. And the Obama transition team is mute on this as well.
If this seems depressingly familiar, it is. In just two years since they won majorities in the House and Senate, the Democrats have managed to meet and surpass the Republican record of ethical depravity and self-dealing. Kimberley Strassel goes through a partial list:
The Blagojevich drama is titillating enough, and local Democrats’ dithering over how to fill Mr. Obama’s seat guarantees it will remain a storyline longer than is comfortable. But the Illinois drama has also thrust new light on the ongoing ethical controversies of House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel. At the rate the House Ethics Committee is receiving complaints — over Mr. Rangel’s real-estate problems, tax problems, his privately sponsored trips to the Caribbean, and donations to his center in New York — this too will make headlines for a while.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune published a new story about Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who racked up $420,000 through a series of suspicious real-estate deals. Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, came under scrutiny this fall for questionable earmarking. West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan has been under investigation for a separate earmarking mess. And then there’s Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who has yet to answer questions about the sweetheart mortgage deal he received from Countrywide.
Riding a wave of disgust by the public, the Democrats won back control of Congress in 2006 and promised to be the most ethical Congress ever. And their presidential nominee two years later promised an entire era of New Politics. Lobbyists were supposed to be out of government, but Tom Daschle is in. Corruption was supposed to be unacceptable, but self-regulation and investigation are not on the agenda. And “bottom up” politics was supposed to be in fashion, except when it comes to allowing citizens to vote for an open Senate seat.
It is disheartening to be reminded that corruption, ethical sloth, and party cronyism aren’t limited to one party and the victors never learn the lesson when the other bums get thrown out. David Freddoso’s account of President-elect Obama’s time in Chicago portrays him as a “go along to get along” sort of politician. He was not personally corrupt, but he was nevertheless unwilling to challenge those who were. That unfortunate disinclination to clean up ethical cesspools is, from what we have seen, playing out now in Washington.
It needn’t be this way. President Obama can take on corruption wherever he sees it and push for reform whenever it is needed. Appoint a special prosecutor if needed to investigate the Madoff money connection. Demand an election in Illinois. Urge Congress to complete its Rangel investigation and act promptly to rid itself of scandal. And, of course, disclose all the information on Blagojevich, answer all questions the media can muster, and dismiss anyone on the team who may have crossed an ethical line.
That would be the New Politics. And that would be worthy of all Americans’ respect and admiration.