Wednesday August 24, 2016
May 13th, 2016
In an op-ed for The Post back in March, Republican strategist Whit Ayres neatly spelled out the annihilation that could befall his party's chances of retaking the White House if Donald Trump were to become its presidential nominee. " Demographic trends make clear that a Republican nominee who hopes to win a majority of the popular vote in 2016 must gain either 30 percent of the nonwhite vote or 65 percent of the white vote," Ayres wrote. He added, "Trump doesn't stand a chance of doing either one."
But one other thing Ayres wrote in his opinion piece caught my attention. "A Trump nomination would . . . seriously threaten Republican majorities in Congress," he pointed out. In theory, I get it. Folks go into the voting booth to vote for president and then just keep voting for the president's party in down-ballot races. Also, gerrymandering and incumbent advantage make ousting a majority, particularly in the House, seemingly impossible. Still, there are times when voters split their tickets. That is, they vote for the president of one party and then vote for House and Senate candidates of another party.
In the now infamous case of Citizens United v. FEC , the Supreme Court corrected a 20-year-old mistake that, if allowed to continue, threatened to consume the First Amendment. The mistake was made in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in 1990, when the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan restriction on corporate spending to independently run ads supporting or opposing a candidates for state office.
In Austin , the court endorsed a stunningly broad theory of corruption. In the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, corruption was expanded to include "the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas."
There are two ways that Donald Trump can become president. Either he must become significantly more popular among general-election voters. Or his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, must become significantly more unpopular.
It won't take long for Trump to figure out which is the more promising path.
Right now, flush with optimism after a stunning victory over more than a dozen primary foes, Trump's campaign has both goals in sight. Trump is hoping to rally conservatives and independents behind his candidacy. In his victory speech after the Indiana primary last week, Trump magnanimously refrained from calling defeated Sen. Ted Cruz a liar, or implying that Cruz's father aided the assassination of an American president. It was a veritable charm offensive.
Corruption is a morally charged word. When we say someone is corrupt, we don't just mean that a person broke a rule or failed to meet an expectation. The word implies something is rotten at its core, that something fundamental has been betrayed. The power of the word can get attention, mobilize public opinion and express disapproval in the strongest terms.
Given the power of the term, it is unsurprising that its meaning is hotly debated in the field of politics, not least when it comes to the impact of money on policymaking. The narrow view of corruption taken in U.S. courts - along with an attitude of distrust of government - has shaped the U.S. campaign finance system into something vastly different from those in other countries, such as Britain.
Though our political system is flawed and perhaps even "rigged" in certain important ways, there is very little political corruption in the United States. This claim is typically met with disbelief. How can anyone argue that our political process is not corrupted by the vast amounts of money spent on campaigns and the countless hours elected officials and their challengers spend raising that money?
One's answer to that question depends, of course, on one's definition of "corruption." The standard definition is that corruption is the use of public position for private gain. From this perspective, the archetypal corrupt act is a bribe. So if we are judging U.S. politics by the number of bribes being taken, we can reach no other conclusion than that there is little political corruption in the United States .
When we talk about political corruption, what often comes to mind is what the law calls "quid pro quo": I give a politician money and in exchange he or she gets me a government contract or votes in my favor. But there is a continuum of quid pro quo exchanges, some plainly illegal, some not and some ambiguous.
In the case of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell, the Supreme Court will decide whether it is constitutional to prosecute a public official for conduct on that continuum, conduct never before determined to be at the illegal end. The issue is not whether we should regulate gifts to public officials; the issue is whether the criminal law can be used as a bludgeon when we have not done so. I think not. As a matter of due process, criminal prosecutions can be brought only when we have clearly defined what is legal and what is not.
Members of Congress spend the majority of their time fundraising from wealthy donors, learning the smallest details about donors' lives - at the expense of learning about the policy details most relevant to their legislative work. When they're not fundraising, members may be anxious about meeting their fundraising quotas set by the national committees, or worried about offending the secret donors to powerful super PACs. This lurking fear undoubtedly shapes policy decisions, lest a wrong move trigger a deluge of attack ads from special interests.
The Supreme Court has said that none of this is corrupt or corrupting. That defies law, history and logic. In a recent case Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "Any [campaign finance] regulation must instead target what we have called 'quid pro quo' corruption or its appearance. That Latin phrase captures the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money."
On "Face the Nation," Hillary Clinton was asked if she's trying to nudge Bernie Sanders out of the race, and offered a reply that, at first hearing, sounded like a standard-issue denial. But buried in her answer was an interesting challenge to progressives -- one that suggests a way for the Sanders movement to reconstitute and reinvent itself after the primaries are over:
"I'm three million votes ahead of Senator Sanders, nearly 300 pledged delegates ahead of him. He has to make his own mind up.
"But I was very heartened to hear him say last week that he is going to work seven days a week to make sure Donald Trump doesn't become president. And I want to unify the party. I see a great role and opportunity for him and his supporters to be part of that unified party, to move into not just November to win the election against Donald Trump, but to then govern based on the progressive goals that he and I share.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 presidential race, I ran into a prominent former Republican governor in D.C. I asked him what he thought the party needed to do to solve its increasingly problematic demographic issues and the ever-widening chasm between tea party conservatives and the party establishment.
"We may need another '64," he told me.
That, of course, is a reference to the 1964 election when conservatives got the candidate they wanted - Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater - and watched as his message proved too far to the ideological right for a large majority of the country. Goldwater got just 52 electoral votes and lost the popular vote to Lyndon Johnson by almost 16 million. The reckoning occasioned by that massive loss produced Richard Nixon, an establishment type who was tonally much more moderate than Goldwater. Nixon's convincing wins in 1968 and 1972 were, to hear Republicans tell it, the direct result of conservatives getting what they wanted in 1964 and seeing that their vision for the country wasn't a majority view.
When it comes to the international pattern of corruption, the beginning of wisdom is to know how little we know. I have been studying the topic for almost 20 years, and progress has involved many steps back as well as forward. Despite tens of thousands of papers written by scholars during that period, virtually the only thing one can say with confidence today is that richer countries, such as the United States, tend to have cleaner government than poorer ones.
Since the mid-1990s, the nongovernmental organization Transparency International has published an annual "Corruption Perceptions Index," which rates countries on the extent of graft in their public sectors. The World Bank has a similar measure. The ratings are based mostly on polls of international businesspeople and evaluations by risk analysts and other experts. Such indexes tend to match the conventional wisdom about which countries are more - and less - corrupt. In 2015, North Korea and Somalia did "worst," and Denmark "best."