I argued during the general election campaign that the single most scandalously under-covered story of the campaign was Barack Obama’s thorough immersion in machine politics in Chicago. And I confidently predicted, on November 3, that Obama, if elected, would continue to be haunted in office by those and other ties to his Chicago past. But even I didn’t imagine that the continuing saga of Chicago political corruption and Obama’s role as a willing tool of machine politicians would explode so quickly that the Governor of Illinois would be arrested for trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat just five weeks after Election Day. Now, we have Bill Richardson withdrawing from his appointment as Obama’s Secretary of Commerce due to a federal grand jury investigation of pay-to-play practices in his administration in New Mexico. Of course, while the exact nature and timing of the Blagojevich and Richardson scandals came as a surprise, it was inevitable that the foul odor of political corruption – and not just from Chicago – was going to settle over Democrat-controlled Washington. It would have been shocking if it didn’t. Anyone who believed that the election of Obama would mean even the slightest bit of “new politics” was a fool of the highest order; Obama’s constant harping on that theme, given his longstanding willingness to avoid rocking the boat in Chicago and DC, was simply a cynical fraud. And more than that – because the ascendancy of the Democrats and the outbreak of corruption is simply a sign that the Democrats are acting like Democrats.
In Blagojevich’s case, the first instinct of various Democrats has been to argue that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Obama. Other than, among other things, the fact that Obama endorsed Blago for re-election in 2006, knowing full well that Blagojevich was up to his eyeballs in corruption probes (go watch Blagojevich’s opponent’s final commercial from that campaign, to say nothing of the extent to which those probes focused on Obama’s and Blago’s mutual close patron Tony Rezko, eventually convicted of corrupting the Blagojevich Administration); while Illinois’ Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, among others, declined to endorse Blago at that point, Obama assured the voters that “We’ve got a governor in Rod Blagojevich who has delivered consistently on behalf of the people of Illinois” and told the press that “If the governor asks me to work on his behalf, I’ll be happy to do it.” Then there’s the fact that it was Obama’s own Senate seat for sale, or that one of the apparent prospective buyers was Jesse Jackson Jr., recently seen as the national co-chair of Obama’s campaign. Or that Obama political guru David Axelrod, who got himself in hot water by admitting to contacts between Obama and Blago, is a former adviser to Blagojevich and Rahm Emanuel as well as Mayor Daley’s spokesman on corruption issues (a busy job if ever there was one). Or that Emanuel, Obama’s very first staff hire and himself Mayor Daley’s former chief fundraiser, was in close contact with Blago and had taken over Blago’s House seat in 2002 with the help of Blago’s other main patron (at the time), his powerful father-in-law Alderman Dick Mell (Rahm apparently inherited a good bit of Blago’s Congressional staff) and was talking to Blago about arranging another transfer of their House seat to a stooge who would keep it warm (note: this was the seat vacated by Dan Rostenkowski’s federal conviction). Meanwhile, Obama had been pressing initially to give the Senate seat to Valerie Jarrett, another Rezko-linked housing developer who got Michelle Obama her first political job working for Mayor Daley.
The more you spin this stuff out, the more you are forcefully reminded that what was most of all missing from the media’s pre-election reportage was context, the kind of context that makes the disparate threads of this stuff hang together. (See this Michael Barone column for an example of how that works). Look at this NY Times article on Chicago’s dolorous history of political corruption and ask why it could not have run before the election.
Take one of my favorite examples, Obama’s run for Congress in 2000. Follow the chronology (more here and here):
1999: Congressman Bobby Rush challenges Mayor Daley in a primary. Daley’s great fear is a candidate who will unify the African-American vote; Rush, who is black, fails to defeat Daley.
2000: Obama retaliates against Rush by running against Rush in a primary for his seat. Obama loses, and is saddled with large campaign debts after having put surplus campaign expenses on his personal credit card.
2001: Obama, a sitting State Senator with a background as a “civil rights litigator”, gets $8,000 a month to provide unspecified legal advice to Robert Blackwell, a Chicago entrepeneur – more than Obama’s State Senate salary and 81% of Obama’s income from his law practice. Campaign debts get paid off.
2002-04: Obama helps steer $320,000 in earmarked state grants to Blackwell’s company to subsidize ping-pong tournaments.
If you pull together these facts – and I didn’t see a single mainstream media outlet put them all in one place the whole campaign – they present a pretty clear picture of Obama as a cog doing the bidding of the Daley machine, being paid back for his duty and then paying off the backer with public money: old-school Chicago politics that fit in neatly with the similar stories that play out over and over in the careers of Daley, Blagojevich and other Obama allies like Emil Jones. And when you have the context, the actions of Obama and Emanuel over the years regarding Blagojevich are not so easily explained away. Illinois has a corrupt governor, and now possibly a Senator selected by that governor, in part because men like Obama saw nothing wrong with keeping one, as well as because Illinois Democrats refused to strip Blagojevich of his appointment power even after his arrest. Harry Reid’s hilarious effort to avoid seating the man Blago finally chose may be incompetent or simply a charade, but in neither case does it excuse how we came to this pass.
Perhaps the most ridiculous effort to distance liberalism and the Democrats from Blagojevich was penned a few weeks ago by Thomas Frank for the Wall Street Journal. Frank’s column is perhaps the most egregious example of partisan hackery I have seen in recent years, and that’s a field that includes powerful competition; it’s the kind of column filled with things that make you think ‘I know why he would say that, I just don’t know why anyone would believe it.’
First, Frank argued that Blagojevich isn’t really a liberal. The same Blago who jacked up the Illinois minimum wage, making it the highest in the nation. The same Blago who in 2007 proposed a $7.6 billion tax hike package, the largest in Illinois history, to pay for increased education, healthcare and pension spending during a state financial crisis. Blago’s tax hike proposal was so far left it caused an open rift with Mayor Daley, who blasted it as business-unfriendly, and was essentially unanimously rejected by Illinois’ Democrat-controlled legislature. He’s also the same Blagojevich who was involved in a very public and successful shakedown of a major national bank just the day before he was arrested (see here and here), with what sounded (when translated out of typically gaseous Obama-ese) like the tacit support of Obama. Blagojevich may not be far enough left for Thomas Frank’s taste, but if words like ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ have any meaning to the rest of us, Blagojevich certainly qualifies, at least as far as his fiscal and economic policies are concerned.
Frank’s second and even more hilarious contention is that the Blagojevich scandal “interrupts, in spectacular fashion, a long stretch in which most of the Beltway scandal-makers had an “R” after their names.” Now, certainly the Capitol Hill Republicans had more than their fair share of scandals the last four years, for which they have been duly punished, but to suggest that Hill Democrats are a clean-government crowd is just laughable. Without mentioning Frank by name, Kimberley Strassel ran a column in the WSJ a few days later naming a sampling of the Congressional Democrats with serious ethics problems right now – Rangel, Jefferson, Mollohan, Dodd, Guitierrez, Reyes, Kanjorski, Murtha (she missed Tim Mahoney, who got booted over a sex scandal just two years after winning his seat due to a Mark Foley sex scandal that Rahm Emanuel helped keep quiet until a month before Election Day).
And that’s just Congress. We here at RedState.com started up a “Corrupt Democrat Watch” last summer, samples here and here, and we eventually had to put it on ice for a while for lack of manpower; the sheer volume of this stuff from Democratic governors, Mayors, state legislatures and city councils is practically a full-time job to follow (we never did get around to a full roundup on corrupt Mayors like Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit of Sheila Dixon of Baltimore or late-breaking news on Birmingham’s Larry Langford). And now, of course, Bill Richardson. The best you can say of Frank’s argument is that most of the recent scandals trumpeted by the media involved Republicans.
In the final analysis, Blago’s style of graft, while heavier-handed than usual, is inseparable from liberalism as a political ideology and the Democratic Party as an institution. Government, by its very nature, involves giving some people power over the liberty and property of others. Because some government is necessary and because human nature is what it is, there will always be some people who abuse that power, and many of those will do so for personal gain. As a result, we will always have some level of scandal on both sides of the aisle. The root of influence peddling, after all, is the influence, not the peddling.
But there are a number of features of liberalism and the Democratic Party that make them especially and uniquely prone to corruption, always have and always will:
Ideology and Power: Contemporary liberal/progressive ideology stresses, at every turn, that government officials should be given an ever-increasing share of public money to control and disperse, and an ever-increasing role in telling people and businesses how they can use the money and property they are left with. Government officials are, we are to believe, better able to make the ‘right’ decisions about who gets what and how businesses are permitted to operate. A lot of this is out-and-out substitution of government for the private sector, but for the most part, rather than an avowedly socialist model (in which the state owns resources and their distribution is directly controlled by the politically powerful), American liberals/progressives since Woodrow Wilson have preferred to run what remains of the private sector through a corporatist model in which Big Government and Big Labor, acting in tandem, purport to get the buy-in of Big Business to ‘responsible’ business regulation. In practice, no matter which system is used, it ends up being a short step from believing you have the right and wisdom to direct other people’s property to more deserving recipients and better uses to believing that you are one of the more deserving recipients, and a short trip from telling business how to do its business to telling it who to do business with based on the desire to reward yourself and your friends. The root of money in politics, after all, is politics in money.
Accountability: Republicans, as a rule, get elected by promising to be more faithful stewards of public money (Republicans promise to leave people alone, and it’s hard to bribe a man with his own money), and so naturally they tend to get un-elected when they fail to deliver that. Also, even in high-watermarks of Republican power like the 2002-06 period, there are a lot fewer long-term one-party GOP strongholds than there are Democratic ones. By contrast, Democrats who get elected by promising to give people free stuff with other people’s money are a lot harder to hold accountable simply because they gave some of it to different people. If you look at a list of Republicans felled by scandal in the past decade, few of them would have lost their jobs if they’d been Democrats.
Urban Machine Politics: It’s always been true of American (and not only American) politics that big-city governments are bigger, more intrusive and more corrupt, and it’s also always been true that Democrats have, at any given time, long-term headlocks on the great majority of such governments. Machines of that nature are not so much ideological as they are coalitions of self-interest in which political power and political favor are inseparable. Michelle Obama grew up in such a machine – her father worked a coveted City job and worked for the Democratic ward – and it was only natural when she went to work herself for Mayor Daley, and from then on served as a conduit of favors between her career, her husband’s career and the Daley machine. It’s no accident that the list of corrupt Democrats is usually dominated by big-city politicians who are insulated from challenge to their job security. And of course, the best way to get such insulation, as machine politicians since Tammany Hall have known, is to run on ethnic/racial solidarity, since it’s easier to stay Irish (or black, or whatever) than it is to stay honest or competent at your job. Regardless of what the Democratic party’s brain may want at any given time, its body is an organism composed of political favor-trading with other people’s money.
All of which is why Blagojevich and Richardson should not in any way be seen as an anomaly, any more than Charlie Rangel (the political successor of Adam Clayton Powell, who the House unsuccessfully tried to expel for corruption) and Chris Dodd (whose father was censured by the Senate on ethics grounds) are anomalies among Congressional Democrats. These two scandals at the outset of Obama’s term (as well as those held over from Clinton Administration scandals) are not the end of scandal under Obama, or even the beginning of the end; they are, as Churchill would say, only the end of the beginning.