Perhaps somebody slipped something into their coffee. Maybe they are intoxicated by victory. But ever since the November election, an outbreak of political foolishness has afflicted the Democrats.
The list of screw-ups is growing.
- The president-elect denied he knew anything about what was “happening” with his Senate seat, while Rahm Emanuel, the Obama team’s savviest operator, had six or seven (he can’t quite recall) conversations with Blago and his chief of staff dickering over lists of candidates (not to mention Emanuel’s own House seat).
- The Illinois Democrats nixed a special election bill and failed to strip Governor Blagojevich of his appointment power. Now Sen. Harry Reid wants to bar the only African-American senator from that august body.
- The Obama team says it was stonewalled by Bill Richardson in the vetting process and did not, apparently, think much of media reports about the burgeoning pay-to-play scandal. So they took him as commerce secretary.
- And there could be one more crowning blow as Princess Caroline, lacking a speech coach (you know) or any credentials, may be heading where Roland Burris cannot — the U.S. Senate.
It is fair to ask: what’s wrong with these people? And better yet, it is worthwhile to ask what they can do to halt the self-inflicted wounds.
The Washington Post thinks the problem is money:
The larger question raised by the withdrawal is, as with Mr. Blagojevich, the inevitable problems created by the unseemly intersection of large campaign contributions and even larger government contracts. In Mr. Richardson’s case, a California firm, CDR Financial Products Inc., received consulting contracts worth $1.48 million with the New Mexico Finance Authority for advice on transportation bond financing.
In 2003 and 2004, around the time the contracts were awarded, CDR President David Rubin donated about $100,000 to two political committees connected to Mr. Richardson. Both Mr. Richardson and the company say that the two transactions are unrelated. Yet it is nearly impossible to avoid the stench of pay-to-play politics when campaign finance laws allow for large contributions and when those seeking state business are allowed to donate. Mr. Richardson’s conduct may have been entirely legal, but his predicament underlines how important it is to change the flawed system of which he has been both beneficiary and victim.
And there is something to the fact that millions of dollars in campaign funding creates either the appearance or the actuality of impropriety. Sen. Chris Dodd’s sweetheart mortgage deal and the largess lavished by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae on mainly Democratic Congressmen and Senators charged with oversight, one suspects, are just the most visible examples of special interest groups trying to pull the strings of those in power. Since 2006 those in power have largely been Democrats so that has been where the money has gone. Hence, that’s where the scandals are now centered.
But there is also more at work here: the regrettable repetition of the Republicans’ folly, which occurred after they gained the majority in Congress in 1994. Like their counterparts did in 1994, the Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi pledged in 2006 to be the most ethical Congress ever; they wouldn’t fall prey to the excesses and overreach which took down their opponents. Not them.
But then it happened. No one wanted to kick out William Jefferson (he of “cash in the freezer” fame). No one now wants to give Charlie Rangel the boot, no matter how many ethics and tax slip-ups he has committed. No one in the Obama transition team thinks its time to freeze out Blago and read the riot act to their Illinois political brethren about holding a special election. Everyone is too busy constructing a majority, holding power, and congratulating one another for their mastery of the media. To paraphrase James Carville and Paul Begala, “It’s the hubris, stupid.”
So what can the Democrats do to get back on track? For starters, declare that all the open Senate seats (and that means the seat-warmed Delaware one too) should be filled by special election. If an heiress or an aide wants the seat, let ‘em win it at the ballot box. This would go a long way toward restoring the notion that the Democrats believe in democracy, not backroom deals.
Next, declare that no member of a committee with oversight authority will accept campaign money from a regulated entity or an individual who works for one. The regulated industries and their minions can lobby all they want. They can have all the meetings they wish with whichever legislator wants to talk to them. But the congressmen and senators in charge of restyling the entire structure of our nation’s financial system aren’t going to take money from those they police. That might get some attention — and some respect.
Then, just throw the bums out. Toss Rangel and Dodd from their posts until their ethics problems are eradicated. If the Republicans can give the boot to Rep. Don Young, the Democrats can set aside their poster children for corruption as well.
And, finally, over at the Obama transition team they would be wise to reconsider some remaining situations that may cause them problems. Should Eric Holder, who helped usher along Marc Rich’s pardon and then fudged about his involvement to Congress, really be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer? Should Tom Daschle recuse himself from any dealings with his former healthcare clients? Someone might want to think twice before providing more ammunition for the Republicans, who are now delighting in their opponents’ travails.
In two short years the Democrats have succeeded in frittering away their advantage on the “clean government” issue. But it’s not too late to reverse course and demonstrate that they are smart enough to avoid their opponents’ errors. If they don’t, they risk turning 2010 into another 2006 — a year to clean the stables and start anew.