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Railing Against Corruption Could Backfire on Democrats

Will a blast from the past help the party win seats — or just bum everyone out?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren says “big money” corrodes our democracy. But can her legislating keep up with her messaging? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren says “big money” corrodes our democracy. But can her legislating keep up with her messaging? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Democrats are running like it’s 2006 again. That strategy may help them win races in November, but it isn’t risk-free.

The revival of the minority party’s anti-lobbying, anti-big-donor messaging, known as the “culture of corruption” mantra from a dozen years ago, speaks to disheartened voters. It also allows Democrats to highlight the persistent ethical and legal troubles, including indictments and guilty verdicts, among those in the Trump orbit.

But even though the message aims to inspire voters to elect Democrats to clean up what they characterize as the GOP’s mess, it could also just make citizens feel more disaffected in the long run. After all, what sounds compelling on the campaign trail, such as banning lobbyist donations to members of Congress, is unlikely to ever make it into law — or to dramatically reshape Washington’s influence business even if it did.

What voters often get are empty pledges from candidates looking to woo them.

Who could forget that candidate-for-president Donald Trump promised he would drain the swamp, borrowing a term that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi used back in ’06? He hasn’t drained it yet, unless you count the guilty verdict of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, once a lobbyist for far-flung foreign clients, whom the president recently called a “good man” and a victim of a “witch hunt” investigation.

ICYMI: ‘President Did Nothing Wrong,’ Sanders Says

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Politicians on both sides of the aisle have a long history of blasting the special interests on the campaign trail, while filling their coffers with donor dollars and, yes, consulting with lobbyists about policy and legislation.

Vilifying lobbyists amounts to “cheap talk,” says Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, author of “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It.”

Most voters do say they want an overhaul of federal campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws. Fully 77 percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll earlier this year said they support limits on the amount of money that people or groups can spend on campaigns, while 65 percent said new laws could be effective in reducing the role of money in politics.

The sound bites and talking points, specifically from Democrats this cycle, sound appealing to that end. But what happens if, or when, they come up short, or empty?

Voters may give up, more disillusioned than before.

Lessig, an advocate of using taxpayer dollars to finance elections, says that risk exists. But the measure of overhaul proposals, he says, should not be whether it’s easy to pass but whether it would have any effect.

“Democrats have been trying to do reform on the cheap,” he said.

“What really disappoints me is when you see these supposed leaders, even progressives, take the easy way out.”

He puts a new proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, in that category because she doesn’t include a shift to public financing of elections.

Warren’s bill would ban former members of Congress and agency heads from ever lobbying, ban lobbyists from making campaign contributions and create a new anti-corruption agency, among several other proposals.

In rolling out her effort, she told reporters that the country is going through a “crisis that leads people to turn away from democracy.”

“Big money eats away at the heart of our democracy,” she added. “Over the last few decades, it has created a pervasive culture of soft corruption that colors virtually every important decision in Washington.”

The overhaul group End Citizens United has tracked more than 200 candidates, nearly all Democrats and 100 now competing in the general election, who have taken pledges this cycle not to accept donations from corporate political action committees, said the group’s spokeswoman Anne Feldman.

Such moves, along with Warren’s proposal, fall flat with conservatives, who note that it’s not just Republicans who have become embroiled in corruption scandals over the years.

“They like to decide what’s good money and bad money,” said conservative lawyer Cleta Mitchell, a partner at Foley & Lardner, about Democratic proposals on money in politics. “And they want to silence their opposition.”

Offering a clear glimpse of the partisan divide on how to go about rooting out corruption in government, Mitchell offers a counterpoint to Warren’s idea of creating a new agency to deal with graft.

“You know how you end corruption in Washington, you take away the decision-making power that Washington has,” she said.

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