The Democrats Need a Plan to Fight Corruption—the Usual Kind as Well as the Trump Kind

By embracing a strong anti-corruption program, Democrats can spotlight the Trump Administration’s record of qu

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U.S. President Donald Trump.
By embracing a strong anti-corruption program, Democrats can spotlight the Trump Administration’s record of quasi-bribery, quasi-extortion, and inside deals.Photograph by Carlos Barria / Reuters

It’s been a year of stunning developments. Here’s another one to contemplate: suppose the Democrats took a stand against the power of organized money. Picture Joe Biden and his party getting behind a set of serious clean-government reforms. Imagine a code of behavior tough enough not just to serve as a resounding statement of disgust with the corporate handouts and self-and-crony enrichment of the Trump Administration but to signal a revolt against the routinized, lower-level corruption that was the norm in Washington before Donald Trump and his crew arrived.

The Democrats may be inclined to take it easy. Thanks to a wave of disasters on the Republicans’ watch, they can be their usual selves and, to judge from the latest polls, be back in control of the White House and Congress in January. But then comes the job of dealing with the profound problems brought into focus by the events of this momentous year. At that point, their usual selves will no longer do.

The coronavirus pandemic and its toll of physical and economic suffering; the flimsiness of our health-care system; the over-policing and over-incarceration of people of color; America’s accumulated debt to the victims of slavery and race-based oppression; the unconscionable maldistribution of wealth; the rapid heating of the air and the seas—none of these troubles will disappear along with Donald Trump, or with the Republican majority in the Senate. One after another, they call for a boldness of thought and action that is hard to imagine from the Democratic Party that we have come to know in recent decades.

The stories of the two most recent Democratic Administrations should be a warning to the next. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama brought exceptional intelligence and political talent to the Presidency. Within the first two years of their eight-year tenures, however, the gulf between aspiration and achievement was wide, and cynicism was resurgent, fuelling electoral reversals and a pile-on of disappointment. Although both men left office with strong approval ratings, they were ultimately unable to translate their personal popularity into a surge of respect for either the Democratic Party or for the role of government as a tool for the common good. That failure, along with the peculiarities of the Electoral College, led to successor Administrations bent on trashing much of the good work that the Democrats had managed to do. A Biden Administration, facing a more daunting set of problems, could easily fall into the same trap.

Biden has not made light of the job that awaits. In statements from semi-lockdown, he has spoken of the need for “transformative” change and announced the creation of task forces to craft suitably ambitious proposals on the environment, health care, and criminal justice, among other broad topics. Biden’s words would carry more weight if he expressed a similar determination to challenge the system of big-money donors, revolving-door appointments, and back-channel influence that has shaped the Democratic Party’s decision-making in recent decades. Transformative policies are not likely to emerge from an untransformed process.

The Democrats’ first assignment, of course, is to win the election. That means doing all that they can to frame the 2020 contest as a referendum on Donald Trump’s unfitness for office—and, given the immediate circumstances, to call out his Administration’s miserable handling of the coronavirus pandemic. A strong anti-corruption message could help there, too. Biden and his fellow-Democrats have taken plenty of well-aimed shots at the callousness, deception, and pure incompetence of Trump’s response to the pandemic. They have not said nearly enough about the honest professionals (such as Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) whose warnings were ignored or squelched by corporate-friendly superiors (such as, in Bright’s case, Alex Azar, the former Big Pharma lobbyist running the Department of Health and Human Services). The Democrats have also been strangely inattentive to the many reported cases of banks, private-equity firms, hedge funds, and connected, cash-rich companies (including Wall Street-owned hospital and hotel chains) making off with large sums of pandemic-relief money.

That kind of corruption has a history of getting voters riled up. In the months leading up to the midterm elections of 2018, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen appeared in court, adding their names to a growing tally of Trump appointees and intimates caught in career-ending, money-grubbing scandals. Thirty Republican House members lost their seats that year, many of them to Democratic challengers who had campaigned as political outsiders rejecting corporate PAC money. Nancy Pelosi, restored to the post of Speaker of the House by that election, cited anti-corruption outrage as a major driver of the outcome. After the new House convened, in 2019, its first ceremonial act was to pass an unexpectedly substantial democracy-reform bill. Its provisions included nonpartisan redistricting, public financing of campaigns, and new lobbying rules. “It is fundamental to a democracy that people believe that actions taken here will be in their interest,” Pelosi said on that occasion. “That is what this legislation will help to restore.”

Then came the impeachment hearings. Like the Mueller inquiry, the drive for impeachment diverted the Democrats’ outrage into a plotline that turned out to be too complicated—and too distant from most Americans’ lives and concerns—to gain wide traction. The failure of impeachment left Democrats with both a bad case of investigation fatigue and a sense of futility about getting through to Trump-base voters or Trump-toadying Republican senators. In the frenzy of new issues and opportunities that have come at the Democrats since Trump’s acquittal, they have dropped the ball on corruption.

But there is time for them to pick it up. By embracing a strong anti-corruption program and making it a campaign theme, Biden and his party’s congressional candidates can place a spotlight back on the Trump Administration’s breathtaking record of quasi-bribery, quasi-extortion, and inside deals. They can call fresh media and public attention, for example, to the under-probed scandal of Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education. Filled with former executives of for-profit college companies, it has catered to the interests of some of the shadier operators of that world, while failing to follow through on a congressionally mandated program of student-loan forgiveness for people in public-service jobs. That’s the kind of betrayal of duty that voters can relate to, especially if they know or are one of the tens of thousands of police officers, nurses, firefighters, and other public servants who have been unable to discharge their student debts.

DeVos is just one Cabinet member whose deeds have sometimes flown under the Trump-fixated media’s radar. The Democrats could be reminding voters about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his role in negotiating a deal to export natural gas to China while he still held a stake in a company that owns the world’s largest fleet of natural-gas-carrying ships, and about the Commerce Department’s ethics officer who was promoted after approving that arrangement. Also ripe for further airing are the favors dispensed to friends and former associates by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, and the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Andrew Wheeler, and the web of conflicts involving Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, her family’s shipping business, and the reëlection campaign of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Biden has been working hard to heal his party’s moderate-progressive divide and appeal to the younger voters whose skepticism cost him in the early primaries. As a born-again anti-corruption crusader, he could tap into the energy of Party activists and inspire more trust across the spectrum of his rightful and potential supporters. By committing to an exacting set of rules for public officials in the post-Trump era, he could claim common ground with those holding out Medicare for All or a sweeping Green New Deal as a test of his credibility. These are problems we will not solve, he could say, without decisive action to loosen the grip of the entrenched industries and the wealthy individuals and entities that make it their business to keep things as they are and to persuade us that sensible remedies are unaffordable and unfit for debate.

Corruption-fighting is an area of policy, moreover, where Biden runs little risk of offending the rank-and-file voters who, in the words of his former boss Barack Obama, don’t want to “tear down the system.” The Democrats have the makings of a credible anti-corruption agenda in their House bill and also a piece of Senate legislation—introduced by Elizabeth Warren as a core statement of her Presidential campaign—that calls for strict anti-conflict rules and bans on stock ownership for federal officials, among other strictures. Polls show wide support for such measures: when it comes to the flow of corporate and Wall Street and billionaire money into politics and the favors and freebies dispensed in return, we are talking about a system that the great majority of Americans would be happy to tear down.
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