Have you ever had a moment when it suddenly, finally and tragically dawned on you that, however much you may love your significant other, he or she is simply never going to change enough for you to stay together?
I’m afraid I may be reaching that point with the Democrats.
To root for the Democrats is generally to suffer from sustained bouts of exasperation, but lately the liberal idealists on this campus have been subjected to new levels of pain. Here we stand at what should be a moment of unparalleled opportunity for blue America, a perfect chance to retake the Congress in 2006 as the Republican war machine drowns in a swamp of corruption. Just in the last few months, criminal indictments have forced Tom Delay to at last vacate his leadership position so that a less evil party hack can fill it. The Jack Abramoff scandal has exploded across front pages around the country — the demise of the powerful Republican lobbyist has tainted innumerable lawmakers and political figures, overwhelmingly conservative, who chose to do business with him. And other prominent Republican ethical woes, like the indictment of Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, have added fuel to the fire.
And yet what is the Democratic response to this ethical implosion? Of course, minority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are making the predictable rounds on the morning talk shows to piously condemn the “culture of corruption in Republican Washington.” But as is usually the problem for the party these days, Democrats must do more than criticize the Republicans in power. They must actually articulate what they would do differently.
In recent clashes between the parties, the Democratic failure to do this has been, though inept, not bone-crushingly stupid. For instance, the party’s refusal to articulate an alternative vision for Iraq probably has something to do with the fact that Democrats can’t agree on what they would do differently in Iraq. But when it comes to the cloud of corruption hovering over Washington today, which the Abramoff/Delay/Cunningham scandals have highlighted so starkly, there is a blindingly obvious path to salvation available to the Democrats, which, for reasons passing understanding, they have chosen to ignore.
Why hasn’t the party already taken a page from Newt Gingrich’s book, assembled all its members from both chambers on the steps of Congress, held a massive press conference, and signed onto a new “Contract with America”? Smiling for the cameras, ranking Democrats could hold hands, seize the moment and announce a bold new package of real meaningful reforms that actually have a hope of changing the much-discussed Washington “culture of corruption.” They could propose a completely overhauled federal system of campaign finance, with robust matching funds for House, Senate and presidential candidates who raised lots of small contributions instead of a few large ones. They could suggest a battery of new restrictions on lobbyists, including financial penalties for senators, representatives and staffers who elect to become lobbyists as soon as they leave the government. They could pledge an overhauled system of congressional appropriations, designed to cut down on pork and earmarks. And so on.
It should be noted that some attempts along these lines have been made. Democratic Representatives Allen, Frank, Obey and Price have introduced a modest but significant package of desperately needed changes to the Washington system, and a host of House Democrats have signed onto their bill. Yet little attention has been paid to the proposed law, and Democratic leaders have not moved to make it a significant centerpiece of their agenda.
Columnist Josh Eidelson wrote on this page two days ago that the Abramoff affair is “a right-wing scandal,” at the heart of which is “the politics of rewarding power with money and money with power.” I certainly agree that in general this is not a bipartisan scandal — the vast majority of the corrupt lobbying, ear-marking and secretive influence-buying going on in Washington today is taking place on the Republican side of the aisle. But I suspect the primary reason for this is more pragmatic than ideological. Depressingly enough, at the present, Republicans control all the organs of the federal government. In general, the Democrats in Washington aren’t powerful enough to be worth bribing.
I suspect Eidelson is onto something in writing about a conservative “alliance between businessmen, politicians and lobbyists.” Certainly, the Abramoff scandal evinces a darkly elegant synergy between corporate power and political power that only a right-winger like Grover Norquist could exploit to its fullest potential. But let us not pretend that Washington Democrats are not capable of trying to at least imitate these Republican masterminds. Throughout the 1990s, Democrats happily raked in tens of millions of dollars from CEOs and labor PACs and liberal lobbyists. Today, countless Democratic members of Congress court large donations with the same enthusiasm, if not the same success, as their Republican colleagues. Abramoff and Delay may be Republican problems at the moment, but in the long run there is plenty of corruption to go around in Washington.
Liberal Yalies who urgently believe in reforming our system of government, and indeed liberal reformers across the country, must at some point ask themselves whether the Democratic Party still deserves their allegiance. Is the right-wing nexus of money and power, which Eidelson identified, really going to be broken up by an ineffectual opposition party which seems both unwilling and unable to seize the initiative on this important issue? Or might our best hope for change actually lie elsewhere — with a high-profile national politician who has an enormous base of support on both sides of the aisle, who has thrown himself at the cause of reform for over a decade, and who has ironically proved far more effective at taking on the right-wing than any single Democrat. John McCain in 2008, anyone?
Roger Low is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.