Democrats are debating how to best approach the 2018 midterms. Some argue that they must laser-focus on Donald Trump and the unique threat to the country he represents. Others say attacking Trump is not enough, that candidates must highlight a tangible economic agenda to rally voters.
But there’s a way to unite these themes, and it runs through Michael Cohen’s bank account.
Cohen, you recall, reeled in millions of dollars from the likes of AT&T, Novartis, and Korea Aerospace Industries, allegedly providing them with “insight” into his client, President Donald Trump. The money went into the same account out of which Cohen paid off Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about her affair with Trump. Cohen, who has no special policy insights that anyone can discern, wasn’t a registered lobbyist, so the payoffs were conducted in secret until Daniels’s lawyer found out about them. The scandal amplified the worst of Washington’s pay-to-play, off-the-books influence industry, so nobody could deny its sleaziness.
This is the fundamental story of the Trump era. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer puts it, there is only one Trump scandal, and that is corruption. Democrats are faced with hard choices every day on whether to highlight Trump’s colluding with Russian interests, Saudi and Emirati interests, or Chinese interests. They have to think about whether to lead with China’s $500 million loan to the Trump Organization’s hotel business, Paul Ryan’s $24.6 million check from an anonymous Super PAC donor, or Mick Mulvaney’s open solicitation of campaign donations for access.
It’s genuinely hard, but there is an approach that synthesizes the anti-Trump strategy and the economic strategy. It can be summarized thusly: The personal venality of Trump and his cadres has allowed wealthy and powerful interests to rewrite the rules of the country in their favor. The result is rampant deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, and a government that listens to you only if you have your checkbook out.
Today the Democrats unveiled a new plank in their Better Deal agenda, an anti-corruption platform that both depicts the broken nature of the political system and puts reform at the forefront of any campaign to give regular people a voice in our democracy. It brings together the anti-Trump and populist-economics messages in a way that makes them inextricable. “Creating jobs, raising wages, contributing to people’s quality of life, is an important and powerful message,” said Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD), who chairs the party’s Democracy Reform Task Force and has been highlighting anti-corruption policies since entering office in 2007. “But people are right to say, how can we get an economic agenda that’s good for the country enacted if we don’t fix the institutions?”
Democrats have used ethics and corruption to great effect in the recent past. The term “drain the swamp” came from Nancy Pelosi in the 2006 midterm elections, after lobbying scandals from Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay laid bare a culture of corruption.
But Donald Trump could credibly run on the same themes a decade later because the swamp is entrenched in Washington, with both parties feeding at its trough. Getting rid of it won’t be as easy as flipping a switch by changing parties, and Sarbanes understands you have to be candid with the public. “The cynicism is so deep that if you don’t follow through you make it worse,” he said. “I concede that everybody in some way is part of the broken system. What differentiates us is that we’re not content with current system. We want to change it and reform it.”
The agenda has three main components: voting rights, campaign-finance reform, and ethics laws. Democrats have been focused on the first two for a long time; both are critical to restoring a democracy where everyone counts. On voting rights, the agenda calls for hardening local election systems to prevent hacking, with federal resources and support from then Election Assistance Commission; restoring the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County; establishing independent redistricting commissions nationwide to end gerrymnadering; and pursuing automatic voter registration to maximize participation.
Sarbanes has for years championed the Government By the People Act, which would give all Americans 25 “democracy dollars” for campaign contributions and use federal matching funds to amplify the overall impact. “We should be creating a system that allows the public to be power players, so the $50 and $100 donor is most important in the campaign.” That combines in the campaign finance plank with the DISCLOSE Act to end dark money, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and reform of the Federal Election Commission, which has been a gridlocked and paralyzed joke for years.
With ethics reform, the Democrats’ focus is unusually prominent, most directly attacking the era of outsize Trump corruption. Much of the agenda codifies into law concepts that had been unwritten rules, and it strengthens the Office of Government Ethics, whose only weapon currently is a kind of moral opprobrium, with stepped-up policing authority. It includes requiring that any lobbying conduct be publicly reported—what Senator Chuck Schumer calls closing the “Cohen loophole”—rewriting the bribery statutes to more broadly encompass corrupt self-dealing, and cementing that the president is not exempt from conflict-of-interest laws. These match up well with FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra’s recent paper on political corruption, which increased enforcement and outright banned participation of influence peddlers inside government.
The spectacle of Trump’s business launching projects around the world, trade associations and foreign governments holding events at Trump properties, lobbyists with ties to the administration in a feeding frenzy, corporate executives rotating in to regulate the industries they worked for, and cabinet members like Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke wasting taxpayer money for their own benefit provides a powerful backdrop to the dire need for reform. “In other administrations it would be enough to place a call to the White House, say you’ve got an ethical issue you need to clean up, and within a day the problem would be fixed,” Sarbanes said. “With this crowd they’re shameless, they don’t care.”
As we’ve seen throughout American history, corruption gets no recognition until scandal breaks, forcing politicians to catch up. Many will sniff at this agenda because it comes from politicians who not so long ago were in control of a government that was still wired for the powerful, that was not corruption-free. But Sarbanes, at least, recognizes that any party that wants government to act in the public interest must prevent institutional rot as a threshold credibility issue. “People are not stupid,” Sarbanes said. “You look at these ‘non-coordination’ gymnastics that Super PACs go through, where the office is Suite 1A, the candidate’s in Suite 1B and they share a conference room. People say if you can’t clean that stuff up, don’t say you can do anything else for me.”
In short, Democrats cannot pledge to solve pressing problems unless they carve a path for those solutions to survive contact with Washington. Running against corruption doesn’t just combine disparate ways of playing politics in the Trump era; it’s a prerequisite to recapturing the public trust. The Trump kleptocracy offers an opportunity, but that can be squandered.