For some time, Democrats have struggled to come up with a way to tap into anger at President Donald Trump without appearing as though they have no argument beyond personal disgust with the president. They want to find a campaign theme that can fully exploit his unpopularity but is also a substantive critique that points toward actions they will take if they're able to win control of Congress this year and the White House in 2020.
One idea that they have been toying with is a renewal of the theme that helped them win control of Congress in 2006: that Washington was in the grip of a "culture of corruption" that had to be changed. After a series of scandals including those involving the Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who was having inappropriate communications with underage congressional pages, Democrats rode the idea to a sweeping victory.
Needless to say, the Trump era provides an embarrassment of supporting evidence if they choose to make that argument again. So on Tuesday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren - who not only might run for president in 2020 but is also more adept than almost any Democrat at weaving dry, complex issues into understandable and persuasive narratives - unveiled a new piece of legislation, the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, which takes a number of steps to reduce corruption in both Congress and the executive branch.
Among other things, the bill would strengthen restrictions on the "revolving door" between industry and government; bar foreign governments from employing Americans to exercise influence on their behalf (as former Trump aides Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn did); ban the ownership of individual stocks by judges, members of Congress and senior administration officials; and require the release of tax returns for the prior eight years by presidential and vice presidential candidates.
Here's part of the speech she gave announcing it:
"Government can be a powerful force for good - but only when it works for the people. And the American people understand that today, it doesn't. Our national crisis of faith in government boils down to this simple fact: people don't trust their government to do the right thing because they think government works for the rich, the powerful and the well-connected and not for the American people. And here's the kicker: They're right. . . .
"Our government systematically favors the rich over the poor, the donor class over the working class, the well-connected over the disconnected. This is deliberate, and we need to call this what it is - corruption, plain and simple. Corruption has seeped into the fabric of our government, tilting thousands of decisions away from the public good and toward the desires of those at the top. And, over time, bit by bit, like a cancer eating away at our democracy, corruption has eroded Americans' faith in our government."
The thing about "corruption" as a political concept is that it's big and broad, and can encompass many things. It includes actions that are illegal, like a government official taking a bribe or collaborating with a hostile foreign government to swing an election. It can include things that are legal but problematic, like a politician raising money from the corporations he's regulating or a lobbyist getting an administration job in which he helps out his former clients. And it can involve abuses of power that are not about self-enrichment, such as a president punishing former officials who have been publicly critical of him by taking away their security clearances.
In short, you can take "corruption" to mean almost anything you don't like about the way government is operating. It's similar to how Trump successfully argued in 2016 that "the system" was "rigged." What is "the system," and how exactly was it "rigged"? One day he might use the phrase to claim that Democrats would somehow manage to illegally change vote totals to ensure his defeat, the next day he might use it to argue that NAFTA had reduced the number of manufacturing jobs, and the day after that, he might use it to say that government was populated by liberals enacting policies he didn't like. Whatever grievance you might have about powerful forces who didn't have your interests at heart, when Trump said "the system is rigged," you could nod in agreement.
The other benefit of summarizing the Democratic critique of the Trump administration as "corruption" is that almost every kind of corruption you could think of can readily be found there. This is a president who unashamedly monetizes the Oval Office, who has hired a stunning number of aides who have left in disgrace, and who openly says that he will punish former officials who criticize him by yanking their security clearances but won't do so to former officials who are "nice to me." And that's before we even get to whatever kind of malfeasance the Mueller investigation uncovers.
When Trump ran in 2016 and said he'd "drain the swamp," he was onto something important: Most Americans think Washington is a fetid cauldron of corruption, so if you say you're going to clean it up, at a minimum the goal will be hard to disagree with. But there's a downside: Actually cleaning things up is extremely difficult, and once you're in office, even if you've been acting ethically there are a lot of voters who will decide you're part of the problem simply because you're in charge. And in Trump's case, you'd be hard-pressed to find even many Republicans who could say with a straight face that Trump hasn't made Washington more corrupt than it was before.
A proposal such as Warren's would be hard to pass, and even if it did, it's hard to know how successful it would be at solving the fundamental problems it's meant to address. But Trump has shown us that corruption isn't simply inevitable; it can wax and wane depending on how corrupt the person in the Oval Office is and what kind of tone he sets for the rest of government. So if Democrats want to give the public a sense of what would change if they were in charge, they could do a lot worse than focusing on corruption.
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog.