An iconoclastic ode to grubby politics

This is a fascinating piece, good because it dares to be iconoclastic. (We’re not supposed to say, or even think, such things in the post-Watergate world.) I want to quote the whole thing, and you should go read the whole thing, but here are key passages:

Having governed by intimidation, punishment, cronyism, patronage, and legal forms of corruption, Christie is now unmanned. He has renounced Satan and all his works, given up his ability to kneecap and to bribe.

And that’s a shame, because Chris Christieism is not the main problem with American politics these days, or even a problem at all. American politics is a broken horror, particularly at the national level, not because politicians are too dirty, but because they’re not nearly dirty enough. Children need to eat dirt to develop immunological resistance that protects them from allergies and disease as they grow up. Something similar is true in politics: Minor forms of corruption—votes bought with earmarks, traded favors—create a political flexibility that keeps the entire system from collapsing in moments of crisis.

But excessive hygiene is rampant in Washington….

A case in point is the House ban on earmarks, a proud achievement of the Boehner majority for the past four years. Grubby and inefficient, earmarks decorate the country with misplaced bridges and idiotic museums. But evidence suggests they also make political compromises possible. The less than 1 percent of federal spending that went to earmarks bought goodwill and dealmaking that lubricated Washington. Earmarks—a bribe, essentially—gave politicians cover to vote against their political interests, in support of someone else’s agenda. Think of President Obama buying support for his stimulus with a $10 billion pet project for Arlen Specter, or LBJ’s entire quid pro quo presidency. On the flip side: The earmark ban made it impossible for Democrats to buy enough votes to pass last year’s gun bill.

Democrats and Republicans rail about the corruption of Washington, about backroom deals and “Chicago-style” politics. But there are no backrooms anymore, just green rooms….

Petty corruption isn’t necessarily in the public interest. Not every act of political thuggery is in the service of passing the Civil Rights Act. Christie, in particular, seems to have doled out punishment for political reasons, rather than in pursuit of major policy goals.

But done right, corruption helps create a government that gets things done. Americans aspire to clean politics. But clean politics has given us a national government that doesn’t work. We need to get a little bit grubbier.

OK, so he uses language meant to put you off. But I think he’s getting at something that speaks to why I hate to see Christie go down over this lane-closing thing.

He seems like a guy who’d get things done in Washington because he’d be focused on getting it done, rather than playing the usual games. He would hug a Democrat (even that awful Obama person who gives Republicans the heebie-jeebies) or give the back of his hand to a Republican if it helps accomplish a governing goal (such as, say, getting the feds to hop to it with Sandy relief). And vice versa.

What’s awful about the lane-closing thing is not so much that his people sought to retaliate against a pol who didn’t cooperate, but that they punished the people of New Jersey. That was both deeply wrong, and deeply stupid.

As I say, this guy deliberately uses provocative language. I mean, I’m not about to endorse corruption. But he is sort of exploring the edges of something that has long concerned me.

All through my career writing about politics and editing other people who wrote about politics, I’ve often gotten impatient with our obsession with ethics, as ethics are dumbed-down in our political culture. We obsess over whether someone has filed the proper disclosure forms by the proper date, rather than whether that person is doing something that is really, truly good or bad. I always cared about whether pols had implemented the right policies, rather than whether they had crossed the right Ts or dotted the right Is.

You’re probably not following me. I’ll use an example that I’ve used before (bear with me). In fact, I’ll just save myself a lot of typing by quoting myself:

I remember a lot of folks getting really concerned about David Beasley accepting plane rides from folks associated with the Barnwell nuclear waste dump, from whom he had also received campaign contributions. People went on and on about these plane rides, like they mattered. (Folks who get worked up about ethics laws have a particular obsession with plane rides, as we’ve seen recently.)

Me, I was more concerned about the fact that Gov. Beasley had thrown careful interstate negotiations out the window in a reckless bid to overturn years and years of bipartisan effort to get some state other than South Carolina to be the region’s nuclear toilet for awhile. Mind you, he had already done this before all the hoo-hah about the plane rides. I kept trying to explain to anyone who would listen that the plane rides were only significant in that they might point to a cozy relationship with the dump people, which could portend that the governor might do something in the interest of the dump people rather than the interest of the people of South Carolina. But folks, he had already done the worst thing he could have done along those lines. This worrisome indicator (the disclosure of the plane rides) was superfluous and after the fact, and it interested me not in the slightest. It was a matter of straining at gnats.

It struck me as particularly dumb that Democrats were making a huge deal over the plane rides, and to my mind never made enough of the trashing of our nuclear waste policy (if Jim Hodges had run on that instead of the state lottery, he still would have won).

Actually, I could have just given you this short explanation: I care more about the substance than I do the appearance….

Too often, our discussions of “ethics” concerns plane rides, rather than opening our state to other people’s trash.

But I’m digressing. Basically, I just found that Christie piece more thought-provoking than a lot of stuff I’ve seen on the subject…

12 thoughts on “An iconoclastic ode to grubby politics

    1. Juan Caruso

      I am surprised your opinion about Clinton being “impeachmed” is shot from your hip, Bud. You had been doing much better than that recently. Congressional wisdom is always open to interpretation.

      However, in October 2001 the august United States Supreme Court barred President Bill Clinton from practicing law before it, and Clinton’s Arkansas law license was also suspended for 5 years (a penalty to which even Bill agreed ).

      Due process seems to have been exercised with historical dispatch in those days. The penduluum will eventually swing back and others will be impeached before corruption totally envelops D.C.

  1. Doug Ross

    So the premise is that we should allow politicians to be a little dirty if they can get some legislation pushed through? What level of tolerance for graft and corruption do you set? Are Bobby Harrell’s $300K plane trips reasonable? Nikki Setzler’s expense reimbursements for hotels and travel from way across the river?

    If Obama could push through single payer healthcare, would you allow him to kill a guy?

    Sorry, but I prefer my politicians to be ethical. Maybe if we had more of them, we wouldn’t set the bar so low.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Doug, it has to do with how we define “ethical.”

      What bothers me is that too often when we use that word in politics and media, we are referring to appearances, not to questions of right and wrong. We refer to form, not morality.

      Take the business of earmarks. In general, I applauded doing away with the practice, because I believed that to the extent possible, the process of deciding whether a given bridge or highway project or whatever should be a sufficient national priority to get federal funding should be objective, and not based on who has the most pull in Congress.

      In other words, I was favoring letting bureaucrats make the decision, rather than elected representatives.

      But one thing the bolder members of Congress (that is to say, ones in the safest seats) would say in response was that it was contrary to the spirit of representative democracy to let unelected people make those decisions rather than elected representatives. OK, they didn’t usually put it in those terms — they would say we were giving bureaucrats too much power, because “bureaucrat” is such a word to conjure with in our politics — but that’s what they were saying.

      And you know how much I respect representative democracy. So that argument has sort of worn away at my position over time.

      So… is it so terrible that a highway that is an enormous priority to people in a particular part of the country gets a boost ahead of other such projects if in turn something that is of good to the whole country passes? I mean, the worth of that project is usually debatable. And if the local boosters in that state or region and their members of Congress want to spend whatever political leverage they have on that project, then they’ve spent it — it’s not like they’re going to get the next five things on their wish list.

      And is that actually “corruption”? No, corruption, at the clearest end of the spectrum, is when a pol takes money from somebody and uses it to install gold-plated plumbing fixtures in his house. The earmarks are more like negotiating among competing priorities. There are these two things that are widely considered to be in the public interest, either locally or nationally, and you’re saying, if you vote for my priority, I’ll vote for yours.

      Yeah, I understand why DeMint and other libertarians HATE them, because they believe that these projects “grow government,” when really earmarks were never more than a tiny part of the federal budget.

      But by getting them banned, the DeMints of the world have accomplished far more than save a few million here and a few thousand there. They’ve to a great extent brought the process to a halt.

      Or they had, for awhile. With the passage of the budget bill yesterday, we see that for the moment, at least, the haters of government have now sworn off shutting the government down and threatening its credit rating because they’ve decided that in this election year, they’d prefer the national conversation to be about Obamacare’s startup problems.

      Anyway, it’s not corruption to go along with something someone else believes is important in order to pass something you believe is important. Your judgment could be, and should be, questioned when you make such a calculation — did you properly weigh benefits versus detriments? But it’s not “corruption.”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Also, one small reason we concentrate so much on the forms of “ethics,” rather than substance, is dictated by journalists covering themselves.

        News people, with their mandate to be “objective,” are a lot more comfortable reporting that a pol failed to meet a campaign finance disclosure deadline than they are to highlight poor judgment, for instance….

        Many journalists are simply much more comfortable with form than substance.

        In internal politics, I was always one of those editors who had little use for newsroom policies that set out clear-cut dos and don’ts — like, we will never publish this kind of info, or we will always publish that. I preferred to trust experienced judgment, because every editorial decision has different factors bearing upon it.

        But then, one tends to favor what one is comfortable with. Even bosses who disliked everything else about me — and I had some of those over the years — would praise my judgment, expressing their perfect confidence in leaving the paper in my hands. Which was sometimes ironic.

        For instance — long ago, I found myself in a terrible position at the paper in Wichita. I had people who didn’t like me from the outset (and I wasn’t crazy about them), and they were peers and superiors in the organization. It was awful. I was the news editor, and was therefore in charge of a) deciding play on everything in the paper, including shaping the front page (many simply thought of me as the front-page editor), 2) supervising the copy desk, news page designers and national desk, and 3) being in charge of the whole paper from about 6 p.m. until it went to bed (so that even sports, which was not under me otherwise, would come to me for decisions on what to do with late developments).

        Because I had all these peers and bosses wanting to negate pretty much anything that was my idea, I had a terrible time leading the paper through the process of initial decisions of what the front page looked like. Basically, the late-afternoon news meeting at which I presented my initial calls were “shoot at Brad” sessions, which was torture, and eventually started undermining my confidence, as cocky as I was at that age.

        But at night, after those people had gone home, it was smooth sailing.

        Ironically, when I left the paper (to come here), the executive editor put out a memo praising me for what he regarded as my good qualities, particularly emphasizing that with me on duty at night, no one had to worry about the paper, because my judgment was so sound.

        Which made me think, “Yeah, well if you thought THAT, why didn’t you speak up and support me in those meetings in which whatever I decided was wrong?”

        But I didn’t say it out loud. I was just eager to put that place behind me, and come home to South Carolina…

      2. Doug Ross

        I don’t hate earmarks because they grow government. I hate earmarks because they are almost always spent on items of lower priority than other necessary functions of government. The money spent on a bridge to nowhere in Alaska would likely cover the costs of medical care for thousands of people. The money spent on researching the mating habits of bees could be spent on feeding homeless people.

        And look at what the king of pork, Robert Byrd, did in West Virginia. Somehow he was able to funnel all that money to special interests yet do nothing to alleviate the poverty in his state.

  2. Norm Ivey

    I don’t mind the kind of scratching each others’ backs with earmarks and political favors–that’s done in the semi-open. That’s the sausage making of politics.

    What Christie did with the GWB was directly HARMFUL to the citizens of his state. What he did with the mayor of Jersey City was political payback and no big deal. Plane rides are a problem because they give the appearance of an allegiance to someone other than the citizens. The allegations against Bobby Harrell amount to enriching himself at the public expense. It’s a matter of trust.

    Trust is the most important element of the voter-electee relationship. Even if I didn’t vote for someone, I want to be able to trust he or she will act in the best interests of the citizenry as he/she perceives it. I don’t want them working in a manner that is meant to further their own financial interests, or just those of a particular industry. I certainly don’t want someone in office that make actually make my life more difficult simply because he got his feelings hurt.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    I tip my hat to Attorney General Wilson for striking the King. Takes guts and a strong case.

  4. bud

    That’s why it’s so easy to defend someone like Edward Snowden. By conventional standards his actions were highly unethical. But he brought this spying atrocity to the fore. And for that I consider him someone to admire. I ran across this website that ranked the living people they admired most in 2013:

    This would be my top 10 public figures (excluding family and close friends):

    1. Malala Yousafzai
    2. Elizabeth Warren
    3. Bill Clinton
    4. Bernie Sanders
    5. Edward Snowden
    6. Barack Obama
    7. Michele Obama
    8. Wendy Davis
    9. Rachel Maddow
    10. Scott Prouty

    Least Admired:

    1. Bashar al-Assad
    2. Dick Cheney
    3. George W. Bush
    4. Chris Christie
    5. Rush Limbaugh
    6. David Koch
    7. Lindsey Graham
    8. John Boehner
    9. Ted Cruz
    10. Mark Sanford

      1. Doug Ross

        Today’s news:

        The New York Times reports White House aides say “Mr. Obama was surprised to learn after the leaks by Edward J.Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, just how far the surveillance had gone.”

        So if Obama didn’t know, who was minding the store?

  5. Gary Karr

    Not that this is directly related to the subject, but do you have any data to back up your claim that Hodges woudl have won running on closing Barnwell? I realize that you would have rather he run on that than the lottery, because then at least he would have been advocating a cause you supported. Also, then he would only have had to face criticism for taking video poker money, as opposed to taking video poker money AND switching positions on the lottery. But as I recall, public education was atop the voter’s lists of concerns in 1998 (as it usually is in good economic times), and it was quite easy for Hodges to tie the perception of lack of education progress to the need for more funding to the magical lottery solution that people liked so much for a variety of reasons. I think a “close Barnwell” campaign would have been a lot more difficult to execute.

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