GOTCHA GOTTA GO? NO.

Apparently, Sam Waterston has ended his much-lamented silence in American political discourse and spoken out to urge his adoring fans to heed the call of the “American idealists” at Unity08. They’re the folks who believe that all the scourges of modern American politics – special interest-driven corruption, nasty gotcha politics, the belief that women’s rights is a crucial issue – could be beaten back if only there was a presidential ticket composed not of Democrats or Republicans but of one of each, and chosen not by people who turn out in primaries but by people who turn out in primaries held over the internet by “American idealists.”

For those stubborn folks for whom Sam Waterson having “looked at it closely”, isn’t sufficient evidence that Unity08 “could save this country we love,” some obvious questions present themselves. Well, a lot of obvious questions.

Here’s one: Would a decline in gotcha politics really go hand in hand with a decline in corruption?

The conflation of the two is commonplace in media narratives grasping for any explanation of voter disgust with Congress that doesn’t involve the kinds of laws the Congress is passing or isn’t. But I think the irony here is that one of few functional bulwarks against rampant corruption in Washington is gotcha politics.

If our elected officials were circumspect about not disparaging the character of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, would the likes of Conrad Burns and Bob Ney have gone down to defeat? Would incoming legislators, new and old, have as much reason to fear following in their footsteps? Quotes from CREW’s Melanie Sloan in and of themselves are simply not enough to grab media and voter attention, let alone overcome all the advantages of incumbency. What helps the charges stick? Relentless criticism from the folks with a chance, at least sometimes, of getting heard: your challenger, and your fellow elected officials. If you don’t have to fear getting gotcha-ed, there’s more cause to do gotcha-worthy things.

Now of course it would be nice to truly venal behavior by elected officials got called out on both sides of the aisle. It’s simply not credible to claim, as the Unity08 folks and much of the media do, that both parties have the same track record on this. Compare the treatment of Bill Jefferson (D-LA) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) by their party leaders. One lost his committee chairmanship. The other was positioned for a good stretch to remain Majority Leader. Unfortunately, opinion leaders who can count more adherents than Sam Waterston delight in the myth that the two parties are bearers of equal and opposite corruption, and that that corruption – the reward of money with power and of power with money – has no relationship to ideology.

That said, when elected officials do speak in one voice across party lines, it’s as often to unite across party lines in defense of questionable congressional practices as in condemnation of them. Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert stood together in a show of bipartisanship to condemn the FBI search of Jefferson’s office. Senators and congressmen of both parties stand together to raise their salaries swiftly and quietly. They stand firm in bipartisan defense of gerrymandering congressional districts. That’s because no matter how otherwise representative your member of congress is of you, she will always be fundamentally unrepresentative in that she is herself a member of congress. Dave Barry once said the best way to get great Nielson ratings would be to make a sitcom about a Nielson family. Similarly, if you’re looking to find policies that members of Congress acorss the political spectrum will support, the right place to start is with policies that make it easier, more enjoyable, and more permanent to be a member of Congress. If you want to see those policies stop, bemoaning gotcha politics is not the place to start.

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DEEP FREEZE

The past week has offered the odd spectacle of Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert standing shoulder to shoulder in defending a Democratic congressman’s supposed right not to have criminal investigators raid his office. On the law, I think they’re on the wrong side. As Akhil Amar (whose lecture was one of the only courses my bro and I took together) writes:

W.J. is a target of a criminal corruption investigation, and if criminally charged, he would have no more Arrest Clause protection than any of the countless other sitting Congress members who have been criminally prosecuted over the years—Dan Rostenkowski, Duke Cunningham, and Tom DeLay, to name just three. Since W.J. has no immunity from an ordinary criminal arrest, it is hard to see why he has some kind of blanket immunity from an ordinary criminal search to uncover evidence of his suspected crime. If other white-collar suspects are vulnerable to office searches, why is William Jefferson any different?

In terms of political strategy, Hastert’s move (and the zeal of Sensenbrenner et al to follow him) is noteworthy because Jefferson’s case was the only one (contra John Solomon) offering serious ammunition for the Republicans’ claim that the current crop of corruption is a bipartisan problem. Had Hastert and company wanted, with a media establishment all too eager to expound on the “everybody does it narrative,” they could have a primed a whole raft of stories this week to the effect that Democrats and Republicans both have to get their houses in order, and the only difference is that the Democrats’ house includes a refrigerator with $90,000 hidden inside. That claim is bogus (and it’s worth noting that Jefferson is as “New Democrat” as they get), but it would have gotten traction nonetheless.

So the Republican leadership could not have passed on it lightly. Apparently, they decided that a week of reinforcing the idea that Democrats are equally corrupt was worth less than a week of reinforcing the idea that members of Congress have the right not to be aggressively investigated. The fact that of the two opportunities, the Republicans chose to spend this week lying the groundwork for the idea that congressmen have special privacy rights (and seeming civic-minded for throwing a fit in defense of a Democrat) suggests that they expect a slew of additional Republican congressmen to come under investigation. And chances are they’re right.

What’s harder to explain is Nancy Pelosi’s choice to get on board with the whole exercise. Presumably, she sees in this debacle a chance to exacerbate intra-GOP tensions and reinforce a narrative of executive overreach by the Bush administration. But when it comes to dividing the party on itself over raids like this one, she can only get in the way. And when it comes to taking a stand against executive overreach, the rights of congressmen are the last place the American people want or need the Democrats to assert themselves. As Barney Frank said on the floor:

I think, in particular, for the leadership of this House, which has stood idly by while this administration has ignored the rights of citizens, to then say we have special rights as Members of Congress is wholly inappropriate.

The Jefferson case, inconvenient as it is, allows the Democratic leaders to differentiate themselves from their Republican counterparts. Pelosi can and should condemn William Jefferson in terms that Dennis Hastert will never condemn Tom DeLay. That’s because the nexus of corporate interest and political power that does so much to breed corruption in Washington is one which undergirds the modern Republican party and which, for all the efforts of some Democrats to cozy up to it, is fundamentally opposed to the long-term interests of the Democratic party.

Pelosi did the right thing by calling on William Jefferson to resign. She could drawn a further contrast by coming out strongly against Hastert’s claim of special privilege for him. Just as Hastert has more credibility defending the supposed privacy rights of a member of the opposition, Pelosi would have more credibility denying those claims when applied to a member of her own party. Instead, look for Dennis Hastert to invoke the Jefferson precedent to call on Nancy Pelosi to join him in throwing up roadblocks to a full investigation of another crooked colleague – or perhaps of Hastert himself.

Dennis Hastert made news yesterday questioning whether John McCain was a Republican. Republican and Democratic commentators alike would do well to remember, before the former get too indignant and the latter do too much gloating, how conservative John McCain actually is.  He’s vehemently anti-union, anti-choice, and pro-war.  What McCain is is a traditional conservative who, to his credit, is more ideological than partisan, which sets him apart from any number of Senators on both sides of the aisle.  McCain’s increasingly apparent disgust with the Bush Administration is an indication of Bush’s lack of fidelity to the American conservative tradition in favor of an even more dangerous radicalism, not a demonstration of McCain’s liberalism.  He’s not our Zell Miller – Zell has simply become an opportunistic conservative who gets more airtime as a Democrat.  He is also, emphatically, not the man to fill out John Kerry’s Presidential Ticket.