The Ethics Election

The midterms spell trouble for the corruption-plagued Democratic Congress.

Four years ago, Democrats swept to Congressional majorities on an anti-corruption platform and a ringing promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington politics. But as the midterm elections near, the promise looks increasingly hollow. Prominent cases of corruption in Democratic ranks reveal a party mired in the very ethical morass it once promised mop up.

The most notorious example of Democratic corruption – and the most worrying for party heads and spin-meisters as the campaign season starts – is of course Rep. Charlie Rangel. The embattled Harlem congressman spent last Thursday negotiating 13 charges levied against him by a House ethics committee. Rangel doggedly maintains his innocence, but the dossier on his misdeeds is long and growing. Among other charges, Rangel is accused of not reporting $600,000; accepting two separate corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean; using congressional stationary to solicit funds for his namesake Charles Rangel Center at the City College of New York. There are also charges that he abused rent control laws in his hometown of New York.

Rangel’s travails have party leaders in a panic. Three of his fellow Democratic congressmen have called on Rangel to resign. President Obama has also weighed in, calling the allegations “very troubling.” In an ominous statement, Obama also said he hoped Rangel could “end his career with dignity.”

Rangel is hardly the only Democrat with ethics issues. Fellow Rep. Maxine Waters has come under fire for allegations that she used her position to help arrange for federal bailout funds for a bank with ties to her husband. Like Rangel, Waters decided last week to face trial rather than accept the ethics charges against her. At the very least, that ensures that the party’s ethical woes will remain headline fodder for some time to come.

The Rangel and Waters cases are particularly problematic because they reinforce a reputation for corruption that has embroiled high-profile Democrats across the country. New York governor Eliot Spitzer was brought down in a prostitution scandal. His replacement, David Patterson, has had ethics problems since taking office. Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was caught attempting to sell president Obama’s former senate seat. The late John Murtha was the target of federal investigators in connection with a lobbying scandal. Accusations also dogged his Virginia Rep. Jim Moran and Indiana Rep. Peter Visclosky.

Ethics scandals have also emanated from the White House. Cabinet appointees Tom Daschle and Tim Geither were both involved in tax scandals before taking office. Daschle didn’t get the appointment, while Geithner, who claimed to have trouble operating his computer tax software, is a key figure in the handling of the nation’s economy. In all, eight separate White House appointees had issues paying taxes, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Former “green jobs czar” for the Obama administration, Van Jones, was famously brought down after it was found he that signed a position supporting 9-11 Truthers.

Of course, corruption is a bi-partisan affair. Republicans lost their majority in 2006 on the back of controversies ranging from “Duke” Cunningham and Ted Stevens to Mark Foley. But this time it’s the GOP that stands to benefit from what cynics call business as usual in the nation’s capital.

Republicans need 39 House seats to re-take the majority. As of now, they are in play in at least 65 districts. Even Democrats allow that as many as 70 seats could be up for grabs. If the political climate remains unchanged, and the economy continues to drag, Democrats are almost assured of losing the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and they may lose the House.

It hardly well augurs well for Democrats’ fortunes this fall that a Democratic president has polarized the country with an unpopular policy agenda. The economy has struggled throughout Obama’s term and the possibility the Bush tax cuts won’t be renewed have made many cynical about the prospects of a short-term recovery. The administration’s signature policy success – the health care overhaul – is now widely unpopular, according to polls. This atmosphere calls to mind the 1994 election, when Republicans took control of the House after three decades by riding a wave of voter discontent with the Democratic majority. That wave looks even larger this time around.

Against this background, the Democrats’ insistence that they truly succeeded in changing the status quo looks utterly divorced from reality. “When I came in, we said, ‘We’ll drain the swamp,’ and we did,” Nancy Pelosi claimed in an interview this weekend. Denial is a standard political strategy. But as the corruption clouds gather over Rangel and Waters, that strategy seems unlikely to spare Democrats from the fate that they delivered to their corruption-tinged Republican predecessors just four years ago.