For many years, opponents of restrictions on the role of money in politics have held out the state of Virginia to legitimize their opposition to campaign finance reform. A state with few restrictions on money in campaigns, not much disclosure, and few ethics laws, Virginia has been heralded by reform opponents as showing what politics at the national level could look like if the federal campaign finance laws were repealed. The picture they painted was of patrician politicians above it all, incorruptible by plebian concerns of money, legislating for the Commonwealth on purely ideological grounds.
Whether this version of Virginia politics in its “natural state” ever existed is dubious. But if there was any doubt that this bucolic ideal is in fact a pipe dream, the trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is demolishing it. The trial is a daily display of a politician and his wife keenly interested in using the highest office in the state to “live large” – a world of Rolexes, Ferraris, vacation homes and private jets. While McDonnell claims in his defense that accepting these gifts from Jonnie Williams did not include any reciprocal “official acts,” there is no dispute that he and his wife accepted the gifts, just whether or not they traded official acts for the gifts.
The two possible outcomes of the McDonnell trial offer unsatisfying conclusions about the state of American politics, especially in the context of recent Supreme Court rulings affecting the role of money in politics. If McDonnell is found guilty, his case will demonstrate just how self-deluded a modern politician can be, convinced that it is because of his charm and charisma that a wealthy businessman was willing to give him tens of thousands in gifts and loans. The case also makes clear how pathetic and anemic Virginia’s ethics laws are. After so much sordid behavior has come to light during the course of this trial, it almost hurts to think what we don’t know about Virginia’s campaign finance practices since the state’s disclosure laws are just as lame.
If McDonnell is found not guilty, his case will offer an object lesson on just how much politicians can get away with under the color of law. The case being laid out in Richmond details just how a wealthy businessman can use ingratiation and access to a high-ranking politician to promote his business.
This outcome is especially troubling because of recent Supreme Court rulings where the majority has told us that “[i]ngratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption” and that, according to Justice Anthony Kennedy in Citizens United v. FEC, “[t]he appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” Chief Justice John Roberts echoed Kennedy’s comments, adding in McCutcheon v. FEC that “government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford.”
But writing these sentences in the rarified air of a judicial proceeding does not make it so in reality.
Justice Stephen Breyer answered his colleagues in McCutcheon writing, “[This is] a decision that substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.”
It is a long American tradition to be skeptical of our politicians. We seek to hold our elected officials accountable, reserve the right NOT to vote nor even to give a damn. But it should be of concern that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of Americans “disapprove of the way their own representative is handling their job – an all-time low.
The McDonnell trial reinforces that narrative. Every day, the evidence being presented just confirms what most Americans think about those holding elected office – that they are out for themselves and their family, that they are more interested in cozying up to wealthy interests that can help fund their campaign or pay for a trip or elevate their lifestyle than they are serving the pubic interest.
Should McDonnell be acquitted, the new path being cut by the majority on the Supreme Court will mean we had better get used to accepting the new politics where short of outright bribery – and the written proof to illustrate the quid pro quo – we can expect our politicians to find new ways to sell “ingratiation and access” to the highest bidders.
McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.