A crisis of confidence

The story of $90,000 in “cold cash” stashed in Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson’s freezer took me back to the days before several generations of campaign-finance reform changed the way political money is moved around.

The story of $90,000 in “cold cash” stashed in Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson’s freezer took me back to the days before several generations of campaign-finance reform changed the way political money is moved around.

Years ago I was recruited for a hastily put-together race that played out like something from an Elmore Leonard novel. We needed to get television on the air quickly, so, on the assurance that money was on the way, I had buys placed at local stations while warning the campaign manager that we had to pay for the spots before they ran. “Not to worry” was his response.

But I still did. Even more so after several grocery bags stuffed full of hundred-dollar bills suddenly appeared in his office. The media buy was made, the spots ran, and I soon found other pressing business that caused me to leave the campaign.

Campaign funding is a lot more complicated, and theoretically cleaner, after numerous rounds of finance reform. But as the Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), Jefferson and Bob Ney (R-Ohio) scandals are making clear, there is still ample room for corruption. And voters have had enough of it.

As I wrote here last week, Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his Republican counterpart Bill McInturff found in a survey for the Council for Excellence in Government that only 16 percent of Americans have confidence in the Congress. There are many factors contributing to this low-water mark, including a year filled with scandals, corruption, cronyism and bickering. Americans are growing tired of politics as usual.

The flurry of objections raised by Republicans and Democrats alike to the FBI raid on Rep. Jefferson’s offices over the weekend may be based on legitimate constitutional concerns, but to most Americans the sanctity of separation of powers is not a primary concern when hundreds of thousands of dollars are changing hands to gain favors for special interests. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) or White House spokesman Tony Snow argue the FBI overstepped its bounds, it only serves to reenforce the public’s lack of confidence in their government.

Rather than condemn what seems so obviously to be another instance of corruption, the congressional wagons are circling to protect their turf. It may be good constitutional law, but it is a message that further undermines public trust in elected officials. That is not good news for any incumbent facing the 2006 midterm elections.

And speaking of elections, the constant pressure to fund campaigns and protect the seats of those facing reelection is starting to generate a growing level of grumbling from a very unexpected source. More and more we hear private complaints from lobbyists about the pressure they feel to raise money.

Many of them claim they spend more time hustling contributions or hosting fundraisers than making a case for their clients. Most of the fundraising is for incumbents who have not, until this year at least, had to spend that money on their own campaigns. It gets passed to other incumbents to curry favor or is spent in efforts to unseat vulnerable members of the other party.

“To be a player you have to raise big money,” one lobbyist recently told me. “That means I not only twist arms, I write a lot of checks.” While most Americans would gladly live on what a successful lobbyist has left after making his or her obligatory contributions, K Street is feeling the pinch. (Have you priced a shirt at Pinks recently?)

Lobbyists will continue doing what they have to do, so don’t expect a revolution led by an army of well-coifed and well-shod rabble-rousers. The public, on the other hand, may well take its frustrations out on incumbents in both parties.

Plenty of polls show signs of Democratic gains in 2006, but Democrats won’t realize those if their message is only that Republicans are guilty of malfeasance and mismanagement. Voters think that charge applies to both parties.

Democrats must demonstrate they are capable of changing the culture in Washington to a more positive, collaborative and nonpartisan kind of leadership. If they don’t make the case that they will govern for the people, not for personal or political gain, Democrat incumbents could well fall alongside their Republican colleagues.

Tempting as it is to just attack Republicans, Democrats must demonstrate they can civilize the political process in the months ahead.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.