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This Op/ed in USA Today is more than a little bit disturbing.  It's about the various- perfectly legal!- ways for our dear elected leaders to line their own pockets.  For example, insider trading is perfectly legal- if you're a congressman.  So is lobbying firms hiring a wife or family member for outrageous salaries, despite a complete lack of experience.

But even more important than the blatant graft and corruption, this article explains something to me- the continued failure of the Democratic leadership.

One of the things that has been vexing me, that I couldn't explain, is the continued failure of the Democratic leadership.  I mean, both me and the DLC have, supposedly, the same goal- get Democrats elected, elected President, elected senator, elected congressman, elected governor, elected state rep, elected dog catcher.  Why are we at such odds?  More specifically, why do the Vichyist Democrats (it's nice to see this phrase catch on) keep acting in ways the demonstrably are not getting Democrats elected?

Up until this point, the best explanation I've seen is a combination of factors- stupidity, timidity, the influence of corporate money, and the sheer desire for power no matter what.  But this explanation always felt weak to me.  Stupidity I can understand, but across the board, consistent stupidity?  Large numbers of people all being stupid the same way at the same time?  I believe that consistent behavior arises out of consistent motivation- that most of the time, people are not being seriously boneheaded.  We all have our boneheaded moments, but these are only moments.  Timidity is another form of stupidity.  I can believe some members being consistently stupid or consistently timid, but for this broad based of a movement, persisting over years (if not decades), some better explanation is needed.

And corporate money?  The Republicans always got more of it than the Democrats.  And if it was a major influence, than the huge influx of small, non-corporate donors in 2004 should have been welcomed.  To make the worst analogy of 2004, the Democratic leader should have greeted us with flowers and dancing in the street, not the bitter insurgency we have met.

As for the lust for power- you don't get a lot of power being the head of a permanent minority party.  Personally, I'd like to see a little more lust for power, do whatever it takes to win, mentality among the Democrats.

Elements of all of the above are definitely part of the mix, but they don't seem to be sufficient.    But add the personal profiteering angle in, and things suddenly fit.  The Democratic leadership isn't interested in doing what is good for the country, or good for the party.  It's all about how much money they themselves can make.  And if 75% of our national elected officials are "on the take" (and I have to assume that's a lower bound), this means that a large minority, possibly even a majority, of Democrats are also on the take- even if we assume that 100% of the Republicans are.

Now the behavior of the DC Democrats can be seen to arise out of two simple goals: 1) win their own elections.  It doesn't matter if they win with 70% of the vote, or 50.0000001% of the vote, so long as they win.  If they themselves don't win, they can't play.  It doesn't matter who does, or does not, vote for them.  And it doesn't matter who else does or doesn't win.  It doesn't matter if they're the last Democrat elected, so long as they're elected.  And 2) be able to make as many decisions as possible based not upon logic, facts, or a consistent ideology, but based upon what makes them the most money (either which decision helps their portfolio the most, or which decisions the lobbyists are willing to pay the most for).

Note that election money is only important to the extant it helps goal #1: get elected.  In fact, blogsphere donations with their explicit strings interfere with goal #2: maximize profit.  If you're an elected representative trying to make as much personal wealth as possible, the blogsphere contributions are a problem.  The blogsphere will get upset if you make too many contrary decisions, and suddenly you're facing a drought of contributions to your campaign chest, and a well funded primary challenger.  No, it's much better to get both your campaign funding and your personal profits from the same source(s), that way you don't have a conflict of interest.  In fact, you don't want anyone getting the blogsphere's money- if you can't take it, you don't want anyone to have it.  Rhetoric aside, your attitude would most definitely be one of "Bloggers leave".  Conflict between the profiteers and the blogsphere isn't just likely- it's the inevitable result of conflicting goals.

And this also explains why the problem seems to be centered in Washington.  The state level elected positions, in addition to being significantly less lucrative and influential than national, probably have better/more controls.  Both of these limit the amount of money rolling around, lowering the temptation.  It also explains the corrosive nature of Washington.  To be brutally honest, if you started waving a few tens of millions of dollars under my nose, I'd be tempted (I like to think I'd resist, but I'd be definitely tempted).  Especially as the first steps don't seem harmful ("I'd have voted that way on that bill anyways, so why not...?")

But it also raises problems for us reform Democrats.  The problem is systemic.  Simply sending new people to Washington won't solve the problem, as the problem isn't the people.  The new people will simply be seduced by the siren lure of money just like the current people were.  Campaign finance reform also doesn't help- that's not the money that is the real problem.

We definitely need tighter controls on our elected leaders.  Outlawing insider trading should be a no-brainer, as well as limitations on "education" and hiring elected official's family members.  But the long term real solution is only information.  Lining your own pockets at the expense of your constituents should hurt your chances at re-election- cross too far over that line, lose your position, and your meal ticket.

Originally posted to bhurt on Tue Dec 28, 2004 at 07:48 AM PST.

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