Republicans in Illinois are doubtless convinced that our party will benefit from the fall of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). Heck, I imagine that Republicans in other states are also trying to figure out how they can leverage this mess in Illinois to have their own Republicans come out looking like the good guys in the white hats. The new Republican mantra may be, “If voters want clean, we’ll give it to them.”
I truly wish it were that easy. But it’s not. Corruption is not something that a political jujitsu strategy can handily leverage. Because voters have such a cynical view of both parties when it comes to political ethics, it’s almost impossible to get right-side-up when it comes to battling over who is clean.
There is nothing new or novel about our difficulties in gaining advantage from the ethical miscues of the other party. Nineteenth-century essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once coined the phrase, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” If the language obfuscates as archaic, let me translate, “After a politician talks about his ethics reform plan over dinner, make certain he’s not stashing your sterling cutlery in his package on the way out.”
Having only recently completed a major poll of Texas voters — one that asked about ethics — I have been pondering how scandal might affect a state 1,000 miles south of Illinois’s state capitol.
To establish some context, let me say that Texas government and politics have been largely clean since ethics reforms passed in response to the Sharpstown Scandal of the early 1970s. No gubernatorial misdeeds. No large-scale legislative indignities as with Arizona’s 1990s AzScam embarrassment.
Sure, we had problems with former state House Speaker Gib Lewis, the Tom DeLay indictments and some scattered local investigations, but nothing systemic. No one is in the Big House. Perhaps because Texas vests the task of prosecuting public corruption in the Travis County district attorney’s office, and because that post was held for most of the Republican era by a partisan Democrat — Ronnie Earle — with the prosecutorial fervor of Chicago’s Patrick Fitzgerald, Republicans (and maybe Democrats) have been on their best behavior.
In the face of this fine record, 43 percent of the Texans I polled said that “elected officials being trustworthy, honest and ethical” is “extremely important” to them. Texas voters rated ethics as more important than effectiveness and efficiency, caring for the people, fixing the economy and all other potential priorities I tested. So even before the Illinois scandal (the poll was conducted in mid-November), Texans longed for honest politicians. I’d bet the numbers are 50 percent stronger today in response to Blagojevich’s misdeeds. That’s how our media-driven nation works. States are no longer cultures unto themselves, even Texas.
The poll went on to ask which party’s officials are best described as “trustworthy, honest and ethical.” The Democrats have a slight advantage, 33 percent to 21. Seventeen percent felt that both parties’ officials are honest, and 25 percent said neither party’s officeholders can be trusted.
Looking at the cross-tabs reveals that most voters simply vouch for their own party. Republicans say we’re honest and Democrats say they are. Among independents, though, cynicism cuts deep. Forty percent of these swing voters in an increasingly competitive Texas say that neither party is ethical. Fully one-half, 50 percent, of all independent male voters hold to that jaundiced view of political misbehavior in the Lone Star State.
There’s a big difference between talking about something and doing something about it. Too often politicians substitute talk for action, particularly when it comes to ethics. Unless politicians in Texas and other states are prepared to enact genuinely tough ethics reforms, expect the impact of the Blagojevich scandal to be minimal.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.