Honesty Is Also the Politically Savviest Policy

by Neil H. Buchanan

Amid the unending supply of dishonesty and outright sleaze emanating from the Trump White House -- which, to restate the obvious, differs from the last few decades of Republican practice only in degree, not kind -- it is sensible to wonder whether the Republicans' political success is an argument for Democrats to honor their opponents by copying them.

Maybe Michelle Obama's famed maxim, "When they go low, we go high," was a nice thought that has been proved not to work.  All three branches of the federal government and most state governments are now doing serious damage under Republican leadership.  What good did going high do for Democrats (or the country)?

I have certainly argued many times that Democrats should not unilaterally disarm, but my point has generally been that they should not compromise on policy positions in a foolish way.  The classic problem has been that Democrats -- especially of the Democratic Leadership Council right-centrist stripe (which is now embodied in the misbegotten Third Way group) --  formulate their proposals by negotiating against themselves and then move further to the right from there: "Well, we can't ask them for what we really want, of course, so let's show our good faith and go more than half way.  Oh wait, they're asking for still more?  I guess we have no choice."  See, e.g., the Obama stimulus.

Even when Democrats actually have power, they give away the store.  Long before Barack Obama became the new embodiment of the let's-not-be-too pushy approach -- not just on the stimulus but also with respect to financial regulation and his decisions not to investigate war crimes or prosecute Wall Street malfeasance, to say nothing of his "deporter in chief" immigration enforcement -- Bill Clinton actually signed the most watered-down version possible of the Family and Medical Leave Act after he explicitly refused to go back to a stronger version that the first President Bush had refused to support, but that Congress would have put on Clinton's desk.  Retaking ground seemed impolite.

In some sense, of course, Democrats have been learning lessons over time and becoming more assertive, but Obama's caution in dealing with the FBI's 2016 investigation of the Trump campaign's Russia ties was a perfect example of what we might call the Ruthlessness Gap.  Republicans freaked out about a quick conversation between Bill Clinton and AG Loretta Lynch but then threatened to scream "partisanship" if the evidence against Trump had been released.

Is now the time when Democrats must become the doppelgangers -- strategically, of course, not substantively -- of their opponents?  Is sleaze the only effective response to sleaze?  Happily, it now appears that Democrats have a chance to defeat Republicans by rejecting their cynicism.  It is possible, at long last, that virtue is a virtue.

To be clear, there are still areas in which Democrats simply must accept that the gloves are off and that there is no putting them back on.  The existence of a Supreme Court justice named Neil Gorsuch tells us all we need to know about that.  Michael Dorf's recent column, "How to Retaliate for Garland," explains how difficult it can be to engage in political payback, but the fundamental point is that Democrats can no longer turn the other cheek or hope for good faith from the other side.

So what could I possibly mean about virtue being politically advantageous for Democrats?  Republicans took back both the House and Senate by being openly contemptuous of cooperation.  It is not quite true to say that the voters rewarded Republicans for their blatant partisanship, because Republicans' best two recent elections were mid-terms during a Democratic administration with high turnout from their angry old white base and a huge dose of gerrymandering and voter suppression aimed at Democratic-leaning voters.  Still, Democrats played nicer than Republicans (as the difference between the parties' gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts attest) and lost.

My argument here is inspired instead by a comment from a reader of my most recent Dorf on Law column, who asked whether I "think liberals should continue to play by the rules of transparency, or should the next generations of liberals play by the new set of Republican rules" such as "[n]ot releasing tax returns [and refusing] to divest in owned investments."  I had no hesitation in concluding that the Democrats need to make an aggressive move to become even more of a goody-two-shoes party.

The difference here is that, unlike foolish compromises on policy or refusals to play hard ball (or even to admit that the ball is not a Nerf product), being the party of transparency and strict rules of political conduct can only help Democrats.  Only the most slavishly pro-Clinton people jumped to his defense when he pardoned Marc Rich, and there is good reason for that.  Democrats never benefit politically when the narrative becomes, "See, you're just as sleazy as the Republicans are."

The Republican presidencies in between Nixon's and Trump's were better than those two scandal-ridden eras, but that is merely the faintest of praise.  All three administrations had ugly scandals involving, for example, defense contractors and lobbyists, and Republicans in Congress were similarly dogged by scandal -- even as they tried to turn every Democratic molehill into a mountain.  When Democrats do find that one of their own is problematic, such as former Speaker Jim Wright's unethical use of book sales to evade compensation rules, they do not rally 'round their pal.

I have said a lot of good things about Senator Elizabeth Warren lately (here and here, for example), discussing her progressive policy views.  Ethics/transparency is another area in which Warren has become an especially effective leader, recently proposing the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, which would impose firm rules to prevent the kind of sleaziness in government that has turned off voters of both parties.  Washington Post columnist and Nation editor/publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel recently provided a nice, short description of Warren's bill.

That bill is going nowhere in the current Congress, of course, but that is precisely the point.  For the past year or so, pearl-clutchers who claim to be Democrats (or at least sympathetic to them) have been saying that it would be politically unwise for Democrats to make the elections all about Trump.  Instead, the conventional wisdom among the pundit class has been that Democrats need to woo back Trump's voters without telling them that their guy is a bigot and a would-be dictator.

I have always found that advice to be both futile and condescending, but we can set that aside for a moment.  The good news for Democrats is that they have now found a way to "make the election about Trump" without making it simply a vote on whether Trump should be impeached.  Yes, the Democrats should and will continue to make their case on policy -- especially economic policy -- to win over voters, even Trump's mythic working-class base.  But being the anti-corruption party might be their ticket back to power.

In other words, the choice is no longer between attacking Trump and ignoring him to talk about pocketbook issues.  Instead, the Third Way (sorry, I could not resist that play on words) is to run against Trump by running against corruption.  Some voters who might say, "Ecchh, I'm tired of hearing more attacks on Trump, even if they're true," are apparently perking up when Democrats talk about sleazy current and former members of Trump's team -- Scott Pruitt, Wilbur Ross, Betsy DeVos, Tom Price, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen -- not necessarily by name (since most of those miscreants are only famous among political junkies) but by cumulative impact.  Add in some Republican congressmen with issues of insider trading and misuse of campaign funds, and the toxic sludge is beginning to stink enough for voters to notice.

None of this prevents individual Democratic candidates from emphasizing direct anti-Trump issues, depending on local voters' views.  Or a pure economic platform could be the best strategy.  But having Warren and others make the election about political sleaze sets a tone that strongly favors Democrats.

Notwithstanding all of that, one might ask whether Democrats should actually be ethical once they take power (if they do).  After all, Republicans took back the House in 1994 in part by promising to impose term limits on themselves, but they then (predictably) forgot all about it when they had their chance.  I think, however, that Democrats can succeed by carrying through on their promises to clean things up.

For one thing, there are simply not as many characters like DeVos and Pruitt slithering around on the Democrats' side of politics.  (Some, but not as many.)  More to the point, however, Democrats can always recover if they cut people loose when decency and political glare demand it, even in close calls.  They benefit by being associated with something approaching a zero-tolerance policy.

For example, I have argued that Democrats made the right call by getting Al Franken to resign his Senate seat, even before an ethics investigation began.  Franken's transgressions were nothing compared to the disgusting and in some cases criminal acts of Bill O'Reilly or Harvey Weinstein (or Louis CK, who was bizarrely cheered by an audience in a comeback performance this week), but having Franken around was simply too much of an optics problem for Democrats.  No one has a right to a Senate seat, and there were able replacements ready to step in.

No matter what one thinks about that particular issue, however, the larger point is that Democrats will do well by distinguishing themselves from Republicans as much as is humanly possible when it comes to cleaning up politics.  This is the quintessential situation in which doing the right thing has nothing but upside.  Michelle Obama was right.