Corruption in government wasn't exactly the cornerstone of Hillary Clinton's disastrous presidential campaign in 2016. Despite facing a Republican candidate with a history of mob ties, dirty money, and shady business deals involving even shadier regimes abroad, Clinton spent most of her time talking about what a shitty guy Donald Trump was. He lied. He was a racist. He bragged about sexually assaulting women. He treated workers badly. He didn't know anything about foreign policy He was extreme.
All of those things were true. But because of Clinton's own imperfect history—her family's sprawling, conflict-of-interest-laden foundation and its ties to oligarchs, her dubious decision to use a personal email server while secretary of State—the Democrat couldn't engage Americans on the key issue overtaking and infecting everything else. Instead, Trump was able to stick Clinton with the "Crooked Hillary" monicker, apparently convincing enough swing voters that she was the corrupt one—or at least that the two were equally tainted by scandal.
On Monday, the party Clinton once led took its biggest step yet in moving on from the hangover of 2016—and the collective failure to make corruption in America a rallying cry.
In an afternoon press conference in DC, Democratic leaders of the party from both chambers of Congress, including Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House, announced a midterm platform called A Better Deal for Our Democracy. It mimics the weak branding of the original A Better Deal agenda the opposition laid out last summer, but while that earlier bit of stagecraft—a somewhat promising antitrust plank notwithstanding—failed to make much of an impression, actually talking about the thing voters are angriest about could really make a difference this fall.
The plan includes specific pieces of legislation mostly focused on three key areas: restoring and protecting voting rights, bolstering weak ethics laws in the executive branch, and overhauling the country's smoldering wreck of a campaign finance system. Some of the proposed changes in question, like overturning the disastrous Citizens United decision or passing the Presidential Conflicts of Interest Act or Government by the People Act, were introduced in the past only to wither on the vine in an era of Republican dominance. Others, like new measures to rein in lobbying, remain works in progress that Democrats say will be fleshed out in the coming weeks. Yet experts on corruption were cautiously optimistic about the scale of the proposed changes in question.
"You've gotta actually change the machine, not just how well we see the machine," Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor and anti-corruption crusader who ran for New York governor in 2014 and Congress in 2016 (and is currently running for state attorney general), told me. "I don't think the problem is people don't know we have a corruption [problem]. I don't think the problem is people don't know how powerful Bank of America is or how much money Spectrum spends on lobbying. The deeper issue is that people see it all too clearly and are looking for real fixes. And there was a long time when transparency was the name of the game for Democratic leadership. So I think this is a big deal—to see the leadership of the Democratic Party embrace system change and not just transparency."
Teachout is talking about the DISCLOSE Act, the half-measure Schumer and other Democrats rallied behind after the Supreme Court opened the spigot for unlimited corporate cash in American elections. The bill would have banned some outside spending and forced political organizations to report donations of over $10,000, among other things, but thanks to some classic Mitch McConnell obstruction in the Senate, it didn't go anywhere. Billions of dollars in "dark money" continued to fill the coffers of unaccountable political groups, eventually becoming a large part of Trump's 2016 victory.
Obviously, as the failed DISCLOSE Act push showed, a bunch of campaign proposals and messaging strategies are one thing, and real change is another. But just as Trump demonstrated the power of attacking "global elites" on the campaign trail—even as he was quietly taking their money and even though he has largely done their bidding in office—the polling shows Democrats are onto something here. What's more, if they win major victories in November on this platform, they're in a position to enjoy a a mandate to overhaul the system Trump has decided to take to obscene new lows.
They could still fuck this up—we're talking about Democrats, after all—and the new proposals fail to fully close the revolving door of lawmakers becoming lobbyists, much less prevent them from taking corporate PAC money. But after showing a ton of promise in special elections across the country, they might finally be ready to get this right.
"We realized that we have to accompany the economic agenda with a reform agenda—to say to people we get it, we understand how we angry you are, we understand that you rightly believe that if we can't get ourselves out from the under the influence of special interests and big money in Washington, we'll never be able to achieve the things you want us to achieve," Congressman John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, told me in an interview.
Sarbanes, who along with his staff has helped organize the anti-corruption push, said it was important for Democrats to acknowledge that, as Trump argued so persuasively on the campaign trail, their hands are dirty, too. The difference, he said, is Democrats actually have a plan to do something about it.
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