Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why Charlie Rangel Matters

I get so few comments that I have to resist the temptation to treat every commentator like a long-lost relative. But a comment on this post from Koz (who blogs at FlyingSpit) got me thinking: 
“[T]he Rangel problem is not the big worry for the D's.  The D's problem [is] their various health care bills and they way they've tried to get it through Congress, ie all inside game and no outside game.  Charlie Rangel is an order of magnitude smaller problem.”
Koz’s point is well-taken. The exit polls on Election Day, 2010 are unlikely to show that Rangel’s ethics cost Democrats control of the House. But corruption matters, especially among the independents who often hold the balance of power in competitive elections. Republicans undoubtedly lost control of Congress in 2006 largely because of the unpopularity of the Iraq war the reverberations from Hurricane Katrina. But the ethical lapses of Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, Robert Ney and Mark Foley didn’t help.  They may even have hurt Republicans enough to cost them the marginal seats that made the difference.

Corruption should, if anything, be more damaging to the electoral prospects of liberal Democrats. Conservative Republicans are happy to live with the distribution of benefits and burdens that emerges from relatively unregulated markets. Liberals want to expand the purview of democratic government, and therefore the occasions for honest mistakes and less-than-honest self-dealing.  Liberalism's attractiveness depends on the belief that the democratic process can function as a relatively efficient distributive mechanism.  Corruption and political cronyism undermine that belief. 

So if we assume that Charlie Rangel and Tom DeLay are equally corrupt and that every other pertinent variable remains the same, we should expect Rangel to do more damage to the Democratic brand than DeLay did to the Republican brand.  All other things being equal, Rangel undermines liberal values more than DeLay undermined conservative values.


Anonymous said...

Corruption definitely matters. I couldn't care less who is sleeping with who but I definitely care who is on the take, who doesn't pay their taxes (I pay mine), who is calling in chits from the State Police, etc. etc.

Koz said...

Corruption is a bad thing and won't help any party who is perceived to be corrupt. But, that doesn't mean that corruption affects any party the same way.

As practical matter, people have internalized Democrats as the ward heelers and lovable rogues of the body politic, whereas the GOP defenders of Puritan propriety. The GOP's failures are more severely punished, because the sense of betrayal is much bigger.

This relates back to something that I learned from Malcolm Gladwell of all people. Relationships can survive disappointment, anger, and sometimes even hatred. But it's very difficult for a relationship to survive contempt. The Katrina/Cunningham era scandals brought contempt upon the Republicans in such a way that Rangel, as bad as he is, doesn't for the Democrats.