One bad apple or a whole rotten barrel?

December 18, 2008

Rod Blagojevich's caught-on-tape horse-trading stands only a few degrees of separation away from business as usual in U.S. politics.

THERE'S AN old saying that goes something like: "There are two things you don't want to see being made: sausage and legislation." Perhaps in the wake of the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, we can add a third: the gubernatorial appointment of a senator.

The FBI arrested Blagojevich December 9 after federal wiretaps allegedly caught the governor and aides plotting to auction off President-elect Barack Obama's senate seat to someone who could help make the governor rich.

The transcript of wiretaps that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald released the day he nabbed Blagojevich provide an enlightening--not to say entertaining--window into the way government really works in the "world's greatest democracy."

Predictably, Republicans are rushing to allege a conspiracy between Blagojevich and Obama, despite the fact that--as far as we know--the interaction between Obama's and Blagojevich's teams was pro-forma. Meanwhile, leading Democrats, such as Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., may emerge from this scandal with their reputations damaged--if they avoid prosecution.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (Michael Tercha | Chicago Tribune)

Blagojevich's caught-on-tape musings were shocking for the level of personal venality they show. But Blagojevich's horse-trading stands only a few degrees of separation away from business as usual.

What's the difference between Chicago Mayor Richard Daley doling out city contracts in the service of building his political machine and Blagojevich's deals to gain more wealth and power? Blagojevich may be guilty of more open corruption--and the operative word there is "may"--but Daley has to hope the Feds don't have a wiretap on him.

Amid all the outrage (manufactured and genuine) over Blagojevich's apparent malfeasance, it's easy to forget that for most of U.S. history, the process of selecting senators was even more corrupt. Only in 1914, after passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, were senators elected by popular vote.

Before that, state legislatures voted for U.S. senators. And very often, senate candidates purchased those votes with money from their industrialist backers, or from their own pockets. This was the reality behind the 19th century paraphrase of a Bible passage: "It's harder for a poor man to enter the U.S. Senate than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."

Between 1866 and 1906, the U.S. Senate heard nine cases of bribery related to newly appointed senators. So if he's charged and convicted of bartering Obama's senate seat for personal gain, Blagojevich won't be the first.

IN TODAY'S mainstream political spectrum, Blagojevich is considered a liberal. His notable achievements (aside from avoiding prosecution for corruption to this point) include expanding access for children to pre-school and health care, providing senior citizens with free use of public transit in Chicago, and refusing to kowtow to anti-abortionists' demands that pharmacists be allowed to refuse to prescribe contraceptives.

He has maintained the moratorium against the death penalty that his predecessor (and fellow federal indictee) George Ryan ordered in 2000. And the day before he was arrested, he appeared at a rally in support of the occupation at Republic Workers & Doors, and announced that the state would boycott Bank of America until it extended credit to the company to meet the workers' demands.

In the Bush era, we've become accustomed to thinking of Republicans as the party whose politicians line their pockets with corporate cash in exchange for appointing cronies to government agencies and political positions. But Blagojevich's troubles are a reminder that liberalism represents one-half of a bipartisan political establishment that thrives on the legalized bribery that the prevailing system of the campaign finance embodies.

In a state where the Democratic Party dominates--from the governor's mansion, to the state legislature, to the most important position outside of the state capital, the mayor of Chicago--"pay to play" politics is simply the way Illinois Democrats run the show.

The Blagojevich scandal is also a reminder that the Democratic Party is one of the main institutions that systematically incorporates organizations of working people into a corporate-dominated system of horse trading and political favoritism.

This was illustrated when the Feds' tapes apparently captured some dealings of "Union Official A" (who has since been identified as Tom Balanoff of Service Employees International Union)--who, it appears, Blagojevich's staff was trying to enlist as a go-between for the governor to Obama's staff. The tapes also caught Blagojevich proposing a scheme whereby he could make up to $300,000 running a lobbying organization for the SEIU-sponsored Change to Win federation.

All of this may prove to be nothing more than idle talk, yet it is the kind of thing that the labor movement doesn't need. Unfortunately, it's too common in a labor leadership that in recent years has proven itself more attuned to Democratic Party deal-making than to grassroots mobilization.

After all the hoopla around Blagojevich's arrest subsided, it was possible to take a more measured look at the criminal complaint against him. And here, there may be less substance than hyperventilating news anchors are depicting.

Fitzgerald captured national attention because the criminal complaint he filed focused on Blagojevich's apparent attempt to barter Obama's senate seat for some personal gain. But Fitzgerald hasn't developed sufficient evidence to indict Blagojevich for committing a crime.

So far, all we've seen are tapes of the governor seeming to hatch a number of schemes, some of them quite harebrained. Fitzgerald hasn't produced evidence that Blagojevich actually did anything about them besides talking. A competent defense attorney should be able to poke holes in Fitzgerald's case.

If Fitzgerald's record is any indication, he will find something provable with which to prosecute Blagojevich--and it's likely to be something a lot less sensational than the charge that the governor was selling Obama's senate seat. Blagojevich may end up joining Ryan in the penitentiary, but the charge will likely be some penny-ante corruption of which any number of mainstream politicians could be accused.

It must have been this sort of behavior that Frederick Engels, Karl Marx's collaborator, was considering when he described American political parties in 1891 as "two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends--and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality exploit and plunder it."

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