Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Republicans in the Poor House

Said the wizened Republican Party activist, “Rell won’t have a problem raising money (for the upcoming gubernatorial campaign), but any other Republican unfortunate enough to embrace her ideas is going to find himself down and out.”

Governor Rell, dubbed “Snow White” by former Democrat Party Chairman John Droney, can well afford to forego tainted campaign contributions from the usual suspects, lobbyists and state contractors on the make, but her fellow Republicans may find themselves unable to mount successful campaigns by relying solely upon the kindness of strangers.

It is no secret that Democrats who control the legislature are not anxious to adopt before statewide elections begin many of the reforms proposed by Rell. In the absence of statutory restrictions, they can plausibly argue that the acceptance of funds frowned upon by Rell is perfectly legal, though it may be morally questionable. But Republicans who support Rell’s vow to forgo such funding in the current election season will have a very hard moral row to hoe, because they are being invited to commit political suicide.

Both Democrat and Republican contestants find themselves in the same pickle: They need one last swig at the bottle before they go on the wagon, if ever. In both parties one finds dissenters who argue that some aspects of the proposed reforms are unnecessary.

In the bad old days, money was donated to political parties and distributed to candidates by anonymous cigar chomping, party hacks who gave off a faint odor of corruption. This did not sit well with the reformers, and before you could say, along with Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt, “I seen my chances and took’em,” the bosses were shooed off the stage and a new crop of financial wizards, unattached to parties, were making donations directly to powerful politicians, most often incumbents or unelectable challengers. The new crew was non-partisan, spreading largess indifferently to Republicans and Democrats. Their anonymity disappeared when reformers insisted on what has come to be called “transparency.” Forced to report their contributions, the new campaign financiers were easily picked off by ethicists who argued persuasively that they must be getting some quid for all that quo and were almost certainly corrupt. At the very least, they were knee deep in “the appearance of corruption.”

So here we are, nearly a century after Tammany Hall was reformed by muckraking journalists, once again up to our ankles in muck. So gummy has the stuff become that anyone who comes into contact with it is permanently marked, as if he were Brer Rabbit laying into the proverbial Tar-Baby in the Tales of Uncle Remus.

The application of RICO statutes to political skullduggery and new promising techniques wielded by prosecutors has made the conviction of malodorous politicians a near certainty. For very good reasons, the professor who designed the RICO legislation -- intended to be used only against mob figures, gang bangers and drug dealers – said that political crimes should never be prosecuted under the statutes. A guilty plea to lesser charges was secured from state Sen. Ernest Newton by dangling punishments under his nose and then holding out the possibility that Newton’s wife might not see the inside of a jail if he copped a plea. In a trial, the truth is brought forward into the public square. But plea bargains are the graveyards of truth.

Will corruption be a sweepstakes issue in the coming gubernatorial campaign? Does the electorate care how politicians get the cash that fuels their campaigns? Will the clean campaign provisions hawked by ethicists further erode political parties and strengthen the lock incumbents have on their seats? What would a politics in which political parties are marginalized look like? Would it resemble the utopia of Thomas More or the dystopia of Thomas Hobbes, a theatre of human action in which politicians operate on the pre-social maxim “Every man for himself?”

These are the questions that ought to engage reformers. Politics in the United States has become more brutal and destructive as reformers have piled up reform after reform. National reforms have shifted the function of money raising from party regulars to Hessians outside the party devoted to advancing their own narrow interests. Here in Connecticut, the titular head of the Republican Party and her troops in the trenches have parted ways on several important issues, a routine occurrence in the Rowland administration. It’s always a discouraging sign when the General goes East and the troops go West on the eve of a decisive battle. But then, when was the last time a Republican governor in Connecticut asked not what his party could do for him, but what he could do for his party?

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