- Scandals continue to pile up on the Trump administration – yet the president’s approval ratings are on the rise.
- Why don’t voters seem to care about apparent corruption?
- One reason is that it’s been embedded in political culture most prominently over the past generation by Bill and Hillary Clinton.
- Democrats moved past the Clinton legacy on the issue of sexual misconduct, and now need to do the same on financial conflicts.
As the Trump administration corruption scandals mount and yet President Donald Trump’s poll numbers continue to tick upward, Democrats ask: Why don’t voters care? Doesn’t corruption matter?
Here’s one reason the Trump corruption scandals aren’t connecting as much as they should: Before Democrats spent the past 18 months telling everyone this is not normal, they spent years reassuring voters that this was normal.
Well, not precisely this. But the general this: politicians having extensive financial conflicts of interest.
Democrats told voters that taking high-dollar speaking fees right before you run for president from the industries you might regulate should you become president was just something everybody does. They said it was unsophisticated to worry if entities related to you had been fundraising from countries with foreign-policy interests before the US.
They said nobody would object if a man did these things.
They said you should look past the finances and understand that the Clintons shared your values and had your best interests at heart.
Of course, the Clintons’ behaviour was never normal. They had the second-deepest set of financial conflicts of interest we’ve seen in a national political operation in my lifetime – second only to Trumpworld.
Democrats could have picked virtually any other candidate for president and gotten a clean advantage on the corruption issue in the general election. But by defending the Clinton model, Democrats were playing right into Trump’s hands, essentially telling voters there would always be a swamp, that everybody does it, that a leader is always going to have financial interests that intertwine with his or her public duties.
Is it any surprise so many voters decided they might as well put their own corrupt guy in charge of the swamp?
The Trump model is the Clinton model on steroids
Years before Trump started taking policy advice from friends at Mar-a-Lago, Hillary Clinton was forwarding freelance intelligence memos about Libya from Clinton Foundation consultant Sidney Blumenthal around the State Department as Blumenthal pursued business interests in Libya with other Clinton associates.
Close associates using the perception of closeness to officials to seek large consulting fees from businesses? How do you think Bill Clinton’s former personal aide, Doug Band, got rich enough to buy David Rockefeller’s $US20 million mansion?
Getting in private business at the same time you serve as a top official adviser in government? Huma Abedin was doing it years before Jared Kushner.
You can even compare the Clinton and Trump swamps live in action in Prague this month, where Steve Bannon will debate longtime Clinton confidant (and brownnoser) Lanny Davis at an event sponsored by the Czech defence contractor for which Davis lobbies.
My point is not that what Bill and Hillary Clinton’s associates did is as bad as what Trump and his associates have done. It’s not as bad. Trumpworld has taken graft and influence peddling to a new, vulgar level. And my sense is Trump’s associates have been significantly more sloppy about legal compliance than Clintonworld ever was.
But the fundamental ethical concern is the same: that a leader has marinated himself or herself in financial conflicts of interest, making it unclear where the public interest ends and private interest begins.
Democrats were defending this before they were resisting it.
Claiming the moral high ground requires imposing high standards on your own side – as Democrats have recently done with sexual misconduct
It’s not just money where the need to defend the Clintons made it impossible for Democrats to enforce ethical standards internally.
For decades, the perceived need to defend Bill Clinton’s sexual misbehavior required Democrats to let things go they should not have, even including one credible accusation of rape.
It wasn’t just Bill that Democrats were covering for. The death of Mary Jo Kopechne didn’t stop Democrats from calling Ted Kennedy “the conscience of the Senate” for decades.
But parties can change, and the Democrats have drastically changed for the better on these issues. They have come to take sexual harassment and abuse and other misconduct toward women very seriously, even when doing so is politically painful, as with the push for Al Franken to resign from the Senate.
Democrats now police themselves on this issue while Republicans, led by Trump, do not. They have the moral high ground.
A similar shift on corruption is possible, too. But it will involve admitting Bill and Hillary Clinton’s financial model was unacceptable, much as Democrats have now admitted Bill’s sexual model was indefensible.
And it involves expelling politicians who would continue their model – for example, Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe should under no circumstances be the Democratic nominee for president.
The damage the Clintons inflicted on the Democratic Party’s reputation is immense
Sometimes, people ask me why I can’t let my anger at the Clintons go.
This is my answer: More than any other individuals, Bill and Hillary Clinton are responsible for creating the impression of inevitable corruption that Trump has exploited to get his supporters to shrug off his own corruption.
It’s not true that everybody does it. But for years, the message from Clinton surrogates was that everybody does it and we should just get over it. Voters heard that message.
The message sounded OK within the party mostly because partisans were inclined to trust the Clintons implicitly. You don’t worry that they’re putting someone else’s interests ahead of yours because you feel an alignment of ideology and values.
This is what Republican voters are doing with Trump right now.
It’s voters in the middle who drew a cynical lesson from Trump and the Clintons: that everybody’s on the take and you can’t trust anyone.
This is how we ended up with a presidential election between the two candidates with the highest unfavorable ratings ever, with the enormous slice of voters who disliked both candidates breaking heavily to Trump to hand him the election.
The Clintons normalized this. Trump is just the guy who took it and ran with it. And it’s left to the officials who come after them to clean up their mess and restore the Democratic Party’s anticorruption reputation.
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