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Sunday, August 05, 2018
Corruption issue center stage in 2018 midterm elections: Georgetown University Professor E.J. Dionne, Washington Post
Politics is regularly described in terms of “left” vs. “right.” But other binaries can be more relevant. “Forward” vs. “backward” often define a choice facing an electorate better than the standard ideological categories. And the most powerful faceoffof all may be “reform” vs. “corruption.”
Much commentary on the 2018 midterm campaign has focused on a drift or a lurch left in the Democratic Party, the measurement of the port-side tilt varying from analyst to analyst. In fact, more moderate progressives have done very well in the primaries so far, but Democrats are certainly less enamored of centrism than they were during the 1990s.
What is missed in this sort of analysis is that many, maybe most, of us don’t think in simple left/right terms, and countless issues are not cleanly identified this way. The same is true of elections. When the returns are tallied in November, the results may be better explained by the reform/corruption dynamic than any other.
New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait was one of the first journalists to suggest how important corruption could be during this year’s campaign. Writing in April, Chait argued that it “should take very little work” for Democratic candidates “to stitch all the administration’s misdeeds together into a tale of unchecked greed.”
And Trumpian corruption has shown that we counted too much on the decency of public officials. Alas, we now know that basic expectations — from the release of tax returns by presidential candidates, to the avoidance of blatant conflicts of interest — must be codified. Scandals are like that: They teach us where existing laws fall short.
A program to renew self-rule is coming to a congressional campaign near you. In late June, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) introduced a resolution outlining a broad agenda that has been co-sponsored by 163 House Democrats. It is a promissory note to the electorate, outlining areas where the party is working on legislation it pledges to enact should it win a majority.
A high priority would involve creating a campaign-finance regimen aimed at encouraging congressional candidates to rely on small contributions, while also restoring the public-finance system for presidential campaigns. Sarbanes and Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) — two leading foes of the tyranny of big money in politics — have joined forces to harmonize proposals each has offered over the years.
Responding directly to recent abuses, the package would codify ethics expectations of public officials — including presidents. To fight foreign meddling, it calls for “real-time transparency of political advertisements on all advertising platforms,” an idea championed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Sarbanes said in an interview that the goal is not simply to have a campaign theme that appeals to conservatives, independents and progressives alike, but also to commit his party to specific actions. “This is not a message you wear,” he said. “This is a message you own.”
Even if Democrats won the House, enacting their program into law would likely involve a struggle beyond the 2020 elections. But the transformative eras of the past — the Progressive, New Deal, civil rights and post-Watergate periods — were all the product of a long gestation and continuous organizing.
They were also sparked by a disgust with the status quo. “There are moments in history,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21 and veteran clean-government advocate, “when scandals create the possibility of fundamental reform.” This would be a happily ironic coda to the Trump presidency.
E.J. Dionne Jr.E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is a government professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio and MSNBC. He is most recently a co-author of “One Nation After Trump.” Follow