“Let us never deceive ourselves, Nefud. The truth is a powerful weapon. We know how we overwhelmed the Atreides. We did it with wealth.” — Baron Harkonnen, Frank Herbert’s Dune.
By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Even though it’s early days in Campaign 2016, we’ve seen several episodes that could be colorably framed as corruption eruptions — the Clintons, naturally, Chris Christie, naturally, Scott Walker, naturally, Jeb Bush, naturally — but the press coverage has a common failing: The reporters treat each “scandal” in isolation, as a story about a candidate, rather than a story about a system. I’d argue that what we need is a “Corruption Leaderboard,” with the mortal sins up top, and the venial episodes lower down, and which would enable voters to compare and rank the candidates synoptically. This post will not devise that leaderboard, but I hope to make my own small contribution to move its design forward: A typology of corruption, which will make forms of corruption as practiced by individual candidates commensurable. But what do we mean by corruption?
Corruption today is generally framed in terms of a quid pro quo (or, in journalese, a “smoking gun”). For example, you are stopped for speeding, hand the cop a twenty, and the cop tears up the ticket and lets you off with a warning. (I understand that in Malaysia, one begins such a transaction with the phrase: “How can we settle the matter?”) That’s a quid pro quo, hence (so it’s said) corruption. But if you play golf with the chief of police, write the recommendation that gets their kid into private school, throw a lot of business to the real estate firm run by their spouse, and then — mirabile dictu — win the no-bid contract for the police department’s new Stingray unit, that’s not corruption, because there’s no quid pro quo. But that’s ridiculous, and Zephyr Teachout explains in Politico just how ridiculous it is:
In McCutcheon v. FEC, the landmark case that threw out aggregate limits on campaign spending last week, Chief Justice John Roberts made clear that for the majority of this current Supreme Court, corruption means quid pro quo corruption. In other words, if it’s not punishable by a bribery statute, it’s not corruption.
This is a reasonable mistake to make at a dinner party. But it’s a disastrous mistake to make for democracy, when the stakes are so high. Essentially, Roberts used a criminal law term—of recent vintage and unclear meaning—to describe a constitutional-level concept. It is as if he used a modern New York statute describing what “speech” means to determine the scope of the First Amendment.
To hear Roberts—or his fellow justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy—tell it, corruption isn’t corruption if there isn’t a quid pro quo.
But that’s not how the Framers understood corruption. (Teachout’s book, Corruption in America, is said to be excellent, but I don’t own a copy, and so I’m going to rely on her earlier article in the Cornell Law Review, “The Anti-Corruption Principle,” which is available online [PDF].) Here’s Teachout’s definition, which subsumes quid pro quo but is more subtle and complex, hence more true to life:
While 1787 delegates disagreed on when corruption might occur, they brought a general shared understanding of what political corruption meant. To the delegates, political corruption referred to , including, without limitation, bribery, public decisions to serve private wealth made because of dependent relationships, public decisions to serve executive power made because of dependent relationships, and use by public officials of their positions of power to become wealthy. Two features of the definitional framework of corruption at the time deserve special attention, because they are not frequently articulated by all modern academics or judges. The first feature is that corruption was defined in terms of an attitude toward public service, not in relation to a set of criminal laws. The second feature is that citizenship was understood to be a public office. The delegates believed that non-elected citizens wielding or attempting to influence public power can be corrupt and that elite corruption is a serious threat to a polity.
Since “dependent relationships” seem to be key to Teachout’s analysis, I’m going to propose a typology that’s based on social relationships, as follows:
3) Personal Networking
Now let’s look at Campaign 2016 using this typology.
Corruption as Fealty: Walker and Rubio
The fealty model of corruption — the very simple, even primitive dependency relation where a client politician pledges fealty to a wealthy patron — was pioneered most visibly, as so much else in contemporary politics that is degrading and damaging, by Newt Gingrich, who managed — despite having no prospect of electoral success whatever — to take gambling squillionaire Sheldon Adelson for a cool $15 million. Pocket change for Adelman, of course, who is America’s eighth richest person, but a big payday for a grifter like Newtie. And if that’s not a “dependent relationship,” I’d like to know what is. If we want to know what the workings of such a relationship look like from the inside, we can listen in to this conversation between Scott Walker and knuckle-dragging squillionaire David Koch — or, more precisely, between Scott Walker and a prankster named Ian Murphy, posing as knuckle-dragging squillionaire David Koch. From the transcript at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel; the context is the Wisconsin Capitol protests, where Walker made his national reputation as a Republican who stomps Democrats:
WALKER: My sense is hell, I’ll talk to [the Occupiers], if they want to yell at me for an hour, you know I’m used to that, I can deal with that, but I’m not negotiating.
“KOCH”: Bring a baseball bat. That’s what I’d do.
WALKER: [Laughs] I have one in my office; you’d be happy with that. [Laughs] I have a Slugger with my name on it.
“KOCH”: Beautiful. …
“KOCH”: Now what else could we do for you down there?
WALKER: Well the biggest thing would be — and your guy on the ground (Americans For Prosperity President Tim Phillips) is probably seeing this, it would be well, two things. … So the one thing in your question, the more groups that are encouraging people not just to show up but to call lawmakers and tell them to hang firm with the governor, the better. Because the more they get that assurance, the easier it is for them to vote yes. The other thing is more long term, and that is after this, you know the coming days and weeks and months ahead, particularly in some of these more swing areas, a lot of these guys are gonna need, they don’t actually need ads for them but they’re going to need a message put out reinforcing why this was a good thing to do for the economy and a good thing to do for the state. So the extent that that message is out over and over again is obviously a good thing.
“KOCH”: Right, right. We’ll back you any way we can. But what we were thinking about the crowd was, uh, was planting some troublemakers.
WALKER: You know, well, the only problem with that — because we thought about that. The problem with — my only gut reaction to that would be, right now the lawmakers I’ve talked to have just completely had it with them. … My only fear would be if there’s a ruckus caused is that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has to settle to avoid all these problems. ….
“KOCH”: Well, good; good. It’s good catching up with ya’.
WALKER: Yeah, well thanks. This is an exciting time. …
“KOCH”: [Laughs] Well, I tell you what, Scott: Once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali (California) and really show you a good time.
WALKER: All right, that would be outstanding. Thanks for all the support in helping us move the cause forward, and we appreciate it, and we’re doing it the just and right thing for the right reasons and it’s all about getting our freedoms back.
“KOCH”: Absolutely. And, you know, we have a little bit of a vested interest as well. [Laughs]
WALKER: Well that’s just it, the bottom line is we’re gonna get the world moving here ’cause it’s the right thing to do.
“KOCH”: Alright then.
WALKER: Thanks a million!
“Thanks a million.” Hmm. Anyhow, yes, that’s my favorite part, but the part where “Koch” suggests planting agent provocateurs among the Occupiers, and Walker waves him off, not because that would be wrong, but because he doesn’t think he needs to go that far, runs a close second. Again, if that’s not a dependent relationship, I’d like to know what is. Of course, in real life, Walker is “King of Kochistan,” having sucked down Koch Brothers “mother’s milk” since 2010.
Of course, Walker isn’t the only candidate with a squillionaire
owner benefactor. Ted Cruz has squillionaire hedgie and sociopathic model railroader Robert Mercer, and Marco Rubio has his own squillionaire, auto dealer Normam Braman, and just bagged a second, wage thief and yachtsman Larry Ellison. And if you think those relationships aren’t dependent, then you probably think the only thing that’s for sale in Brooklyn is the Clinton headquarters. Here’s an example of how it all works with Rubio:
Marco Rubio lately told the New York Times that Braman never asked him for anything. But many of Braman’s ideas about Israel as an answer to the Holocaust, about the scourge of delegitimization of Israel, about Obama’s criticism of Israel, and about the negative role of the U.N. were echoed by Rubio in his speech in March. Hardly surprising, given that Braman has been a father figure to Rubio and met him in Israel days after the senator was first elected, in 2010.
Fealty. And, needless to say, ka-ching.
Corruption as Outsourcing: The Bush Dynasty
We now turn to the extraordinary and innovative campaign “machine” being built by the Bush dynasty in support of Jebbie’s attempt at a Bush restoration. I use the word “restoration” advisedly, because the Bush campaign is, indeed, dynastic. The Wall Street Journal:
Jeb Bush, who opened the door to a presidential campaign five months ago, is now reaping a record-setting haul thanks to a donor network that stretches back to his father’s election to Congress in 1966.
“The Bush family gave us ,” said donor David D. Aufhauser, who worked as general counsel for the Treasury Department under former President George W. Bush. “So we are loyal.”
(Note that “So we are loyal” expresses, precisely, a relation of fealty. But the Bush campaign architecture goes beyond the dependent — hence corrupt — relation of fealty, as we shall see.)
This ready-made fundraising operation offers Mr. Bush a financial and organizational advantage in what is expected to be a crowded and costly Republican Party primary. At the same, it yokes him even closer to a political dynasty…. The Wall Street Journal identified 326 donors who hosted fundraisers this year for Mr. Bush’s super PAC, based on invitations and news reports compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan government watchdog.
One in five were either members of the “Team 100,” those who raised at least $100,000 for the Republican National Committee during George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign—or “Pioneers” or “Rangers,” who collected at least $100,000 or $200,000 for George W. Bush’s national campaigns.
Nearly a quarter worked in at least one of the Bush White Houses or received a presidential appointment; 24 were tapped by Mr. Bush’s father or brother to serve as ambassadors; 46 worked in Mr. Bush’s administration in Florida or were appointed to advisory boards. A number of donors belong to more than one of these categories.
Mr. Bush’s top allies include 11 billionaires, six former and current owners of professional sports teams and former Vice President Dan Quayle. There is an internationally competitive sailor, a former chairman of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, as well as the author of “Nice Guys Finish Rich: The Secrets of a Super Salesman.”
Mr. Bush’s Republican rivals are seeking support from a similar pool of well-heeled donors. But no one can match boasted by the Bushes, many of whom have been for decades. Some paid visits to the family compound in Kennebunkport, Me., and .
“When you hitch your wagon to the Bushes, you become part of ,” said Dirk Van Dongen, a Washington lobbyist and former Pioneer and Ranger who helped organize two fundraisers for Jeb Bush. “They remember their friends and they are good to their friends.”
Once again, these are relationships of fealty (“good to their friends”) and collectively form a literal, not a metaphorical, dynasty (“multigenerational network”; “extended family”)). However, there are a number of institutional choices for organizing such dynastic relations; one could, for example, proclaim a crusade. Or the campaign could sign up those members of the extended family who are especially competent, and make them members of the “team.” The choice made by the Bush campaign is interesting: They’ve chosen to outsource key campaign functions. The Associated Press:
The traditional presidential campaign may be getting a dramatic makeover in Jeb Bush’s bid for the White House as he prepares to turn some of a campaign’s central functions over to a separate political organization that can raise unlimited amounts of money.
The concept, in development for months as the former Florida governor has raised tens of millions of dollars for his Right to Rise super PAC, would endow that organization not just with advertising on Bush’s behalf, but with many of the duties typically conducted by a campaign….
The exact design of the strategy remains fluid as Bush approaches an announcement of his intention to run for the Republican nomination in 2016. But at its center is the idea of placing Right to Rise in charge of the brunt of the biggest expense of electing Bush: television advertising and direct mail.
Right to Rise could also break into new areas for a candidate-specific super PAC, such as data gathering, highly individualized online advertising and running phone banks. Also on the table is tasking the super PAC with crucial campaign endgame strategies: the operation to get out the vote and efforts to maximize absentee and early voting on Bush’s behalf.
The campaign itself would still handle those things that require Bush’s direct involvement, such as candidate travel. It also would still pay for advertising, conduct polling and collect voter data. But the goal is for the campaign to be a streamlined operation that frees Bush to spend less time than in past campaigns raising money, and as much time as possible meeting voters.
For Bush, the potential benefits are enormous. Campaigns can raise only $2,700 per donor for the primary and $2,700 for the general election. But super PACs are able to raise unlimited cash from individuals, corporations and groups such as labor unions.
In theory, that means a small group of wealthy Bush supporters could pay for much of the work of electing him by writing massive checks to the super PAC.
That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. The difficulty here comes under the heading of “coordination” between the PACs and campaign proper, which is illegal. How is the seventh tentacle to know what the second tentacle is doing?
The architects of the plan believe the super PAC’s ability to legally raise unlimited amounts of money outweighs its primary disadvantage, that it cannot legally coordinate its actions with Bush or his would-be campaign staff.
“Nothing like this has been done before,” said David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes limits on campaign finance donations. “It will take a high level of discipline to do it.”
Interestingly, Bush III’s approach to the 2016 Presidential campaign is parallel Bush II’s approach to the Iraq War, which also outsourced core functions (which, therefore, both Bushes must regard as having achieved strategic goals congenial to them, given that they’re emulating it). From the RAND Corporation’s Molly Dunigan, “A lesson from Iraq war: How to outsource war to private contractors”:
Ten years after it began, the Iraq war might best be remembered as America’s most privatized military engagement to date, with contractors hired by the Pentagon actually outnumbering troops on the ground at various points…. This degree of privatization is unprecedented in modern warfare. … [T]he US military has developed a growing dependence on private contractors – and for a wide range of functions traditionally handled by military personnel.
Indeed, contractors were used not only for base support functions, but core “state violence” functions like security, intelligence, and torture, paralleling Bush’s outsourcing of hitherto core campaign functions. Moreover, the Iraq outsourcing effort had exactly the same co-ordination issues that the Bushies recognize their campaign will have. Dunigan continues:
In a 2008 RAND survey, 35 percent of diplomatic personnel who had worked with armed contractors in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 reported having to manage the consequences of actions by armed contractors against local citizens. And nearly 40 percent had witnessed armed contractors acting in ways that were unnecessarily threatening, arrogant, or belligerent while deployed, including throwing objects at local civilians to clear them off roadways.
The Council on Foreign Relations reinforces this point:
Thousands of private contractors in Iraq are operating outside the military chain of command, Singer says, making efforts to oversee—or, if necessary, punish—their behavior much more difficult.
In terms of future narratives, therefore, expect similar “mercenary eruptions” from outsourced operations of the Bush campaign; exposed yet plausibly deniable push-polling, for example, insulting the locals, or election fraud (as in Jebbie’s Florida 2000 operation). Instituionally:
A complicating factor is that security contractors currently operate in something like legal “limbo.” There are no clear-cut guidelines for their status under international law, and many US laws don’t apply to non-US citizen contractors.
One can only think that the Bush campaign operation has chosen to create such a “limbo” for whatever advantages they may gain from it; in particular, that the risk of “mercenary eruptions” from co-ordination failures will be outweighed by the vast flows of wealth made available to them; AP, above, agrees.
Of course, the outsourcing model of political campaigns exemplifies corruption beyond the quid pro quo in every way imaginable; trivially, in looting by operatives, as in Iraq. More troublingly, the operational art of the outsourced Bush campaign can only be to co-ordinate without being seen to coordinate. This could be done in any number of ways: Winks and nods in the press; back-channels, hopefully secure, as in the Walker transcript above (“Thanks a million”); or, more subtly, the dynastic equivalent of “working toward the Fuhrer”, a feature of the Bush II White House,” where Bush operatives do what they know Bush needs to be done without being told, as people who have been “close family friends” for decades will be able to do.
If you regard a political campaign as “non-elected citizens wielding or attempting to influence public power” — and what else would a political campaign be? — then having key decisions made by weathy funders using winks and nods, back-channels, and by seemingly sponteneous actions, all in a completely unaccountable and opaque fashion, is corruption par excellence. It’s a return to “the smoke filled room,” except with smoke — and mirrors — concealing the room entirely.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the dynastic motivations of the Bush supporters who will be handling the outsourced functions of the campaign exemplify elite corruption as Teachout and the Framers understood it: “good to their friends” is, precisely, a case of “public decisions to serve executive power made because of dependent relationships,” when you remember that , for the Framers, “citizenship was understood to be a public office.”
Corruption as Personal Networking: The Clinton Dynasty
We now turn to the endless “drama” of the Clintons, where having a former Clinton operative like George Stephanopoulos can give the Clinton Foundation $50K and then blithely continue with his network commentary duties as if that were the most normal thing in the world, which at this point, I suppose, it is.
As a younger, but presumably more modern and even more feral, dynasty in the making, the Clintons have not adopted the more heirarchical, military/corporate campaign architecture that the more mature Bush dynasty has chosen. Rather, they have created a ginormous and ever-evolving hairball of tangled and conflicted personal and institutional relationships, a permanent campaign composed of the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Campaign, and Clintonland, the personal networks that both Clintons have accreted over the years of, er, “public service.”
The Clinton Dynasty has what I see as the following distinctive features: First, the Clinton Foundation has actually done some good in the world, or at least can be seen to; it then serves as a useful public relations proxy for the Clinton dynasty as a whole. Second, the Clinton Foundation can obviously serve as a money-laundering/influence-peddling/plausible deniability machine on a reasonably large scale; after all, $2 billion is real money, even these days. Third, the Clintons clearly regard all relationships, whether public or private, as assets controlled by them personally, as Hillary Clinton’s destruction of public records kept on her private email server clearly shows. Fourth, like it or not, both Clintons are attractive and effective political personalities, far more so than the Bush clan. Two-time President Bill Clinton — dubbed by Obama his “explainer-in-chief” — was famous in Arkansas for his ability to “pat you on the back while pissing down your leg,” and Hillary Clinton, one might remember, won the popular vote in 2008 (if all the votes are counted) and all the big states despite the hatred of the political class, a tidal wave of misogyny, and the opposition of the Democratic apparatus. Fifth and finally, the Clintons have been extraordinarily lucky in their enemies, who seem to not to understand, with Talleyrand, that “revenge is a dish best served cold,” and let their hatred overwhelm their critical thinking skills and editorial abilities; Exhibit A is the Arkansas Project funded by squillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, but currently on display are the (surely needless) errors in the latest piece of anti-Clinton oppo, Clinton Cash. For this reason, assaults on the Clintons can often be dismissed as more of the same; as indeed they often are.
Let’s just take the current Clinton scandal as exemplary, because (see above) they are all numbingly similar. From
The Beltway Shopper Politico:
‘Hillary Clinton Sold Her Soul When They Accepted That Money’
LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara—A day after Bill Clinton feted donors and dignitaries at an extravagant Moroccan feast under a warm Marrakech night sky, a group of local Sahrawi Arabs gathered for tea in a far more humble setting here to share their outrage that Clinton’s family foundation had accepted millions of dollars from a company owned by a government accused of repressing their people.
The four men used to work as miners for a subsidiary of OCP, the state-owned phosphate company that paid more than $1 million to sponsor the lavish outdoor gala and the concurrent two-day meeting of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation headlined by the former U.S. president. Its purpose was to highlight efforts by the foundation, its donors and the Moroccan government to improve the lives of marginalized people in North Africa and the Middle East, and Bill Clinton opened the event by praising OCP, King Mohammed VI and “Morocco’s longstanding friendship to my family and to the United States.”
For “friendship,” a suspicious, or realistic, mind would read, with Teachout, “dependent relationship,” especially given that in a monarchy, “Morocco” and “the King of Morocco” can be taken as functionally equivalent.
[T]he Clintons have had a long—and lucrative—relationship with Morocco. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who was traveling abroad during last week’s CGI [Clinton Global Initiative] meeting in Marrakech, nonetheless loaned one of his palaces [!!] to Bill and Chelsea Clinton to stay in during the meeting, according to attendees. … [T]he state firm OCP has donated as much as $6 million over the years to the Clinton Foundation’s efforts….
There is no evidence that [Hillary Clinton] tailored her official positions to suit Morocco’s preferences because of personal or financial relationships.
Here we see Politico — in a supposed hit piece — adopted the quid pro quo definition of corruption in a manner than exonerates Clinton.
… In fact, Hillary Clinton’s relationship with Morocco’s government was pivotal in brokering last week’s Clinton Global Initiative meeting in Marrakech, according to sources familiar with the foundation’s inner workings. They say that, as CGI was considering options including Hong Kong and Singapore for possible international meetings, the former secretary of state, then serving on the foundation’s board, talked to the king about the Moroccan option, which emerged as the frontrunner.
Or, as Teachout puts it, “public decisions to serve private wealth made because of dependent relationships” (whether or not Clinton backed out of being the meeting host as her campaign launch approached, as she did).
As the campaign kickoff neared, the foundation proceeded with plans to hold the meeting in Marrakech with funding from OCP despite concerns of some foundation staffers about the political optics of affiliating with a state company tied to the occupation of Western Sahara and the controversial mining of a valuable natural resource, which some observers say violates international law. The approach the staffers settled on was “just to avoid using the word ‘Western Sahara’ and stay out of it,” said one source involved in the planning. “It’s not polite to your host.”
For “not polite to your host,” a suspicious, or realistic, mind would read, with Teachout, “endangering the dependent relationship.”
Leaving the key assumption in the Politico headline aside, it’s all there, isn’t it? Using the distinctive characteristics of the Clinton Dynasty as listed above, we have:
- The Clinton Foundation as a useful public relations proxy: That’s the “improve the lives of marginalized people” part (except, sadly, the people impacted by the phosphate mine in the Western Sahara).
- The Clinton Foundation as a money-laundering/influence-peddling/plausible deniability machine: That’s the part where Clinton decides not to host the “gala” — although two other members of the dynasty, Bill and Chelsea, stayed in the King’s palace — when her campaign is set to launch, even though every other aspect of the operation, including the money, remains intact.
- Relationships as assets controlled by the Clintons personally: The King of Morrocco has a relation with the Clintons personally, not with the officer of the Clinton Foundation, the Secretary of State, or the Presidential candidate. And if there’s any email from him to Clinton in any of those overlapping and conflicted capactities, it is gone where the woodbine twineth after Clinton nuked her email server.
- Both Clintons are attractive and effective political personalities: The gala happened, didn’t it?
- The Clintons have been extraordinarily lucky in their enemies: Politico gave them a free pass by using the quid pro quo test for corruption, did they not?
And, of course, it’s all corrupt: A hairball of conflicted relationships enabled by public relations, optimized for influence peddling, with evidence openly shredded where necessary, while the Clintons remain, charmingly, more than likeable enough, and where the assaults of their enemies misfire enough to turn any hit into a miss. And it all comes down, as Teachout would say, to “self-serving use of public power for private ends.”
Does anybody really believe that the Clinton who takes off the Secretary of State hat and puts on the Clinton Foundation hat, or who takes off the Clinton Foundation hat and puts on the Campaign hat, is not the same Hillary Clinton? She’d have to be a sociopath to keep her mind and heart that compartmentalized, no? But if we accept the Clinton Dynasty’s “attitude toward public service,” as we put it, that’s what we’d have to believe. I don’t believe it.
And so, readers, this is my typology of corruption as exemplified by the campaign operations of 2016. Frankly, I’m not sure which is the most pernicious. It may be that the mascots and boy toys of squillionaires (Adelson, Gingrich; Rubio, Braman; Walker, Koch) are less pernicious than riper and gamier operations like Bush’s model of outsourcing, or Clinton’s personal networking, simply because the corruption among the mascots is so visible and obvious. If “transparency” — in the sense of utterly transparent motives — be the criterion, then a hairball is more dangerous than a machine, and so the corruption leaderboard would read:
#1 Clinton (personal networking)
#2 Bush (outsourcing)
#3 Rubio, Walker, Cruz (individual
But I don’t think there’s much separation between the top two contenders. And, of course, people like Bernie Sanders, who depend on small donors, hardly figure as players at all. Readers, what do you think, and why?
 Beyond, that is, the simple distribution of spoils to cronies. See Greg Palast, “How Bush Won the War in Iraq – Really!,” for one very persuasive theory.
 Note that Jebbie’s election fraud was not of a scale to cause Gore to lose Florida (and hence the Presidency). The 308,000 Florida Democrats who voted for Bush lost Florida for Gore (and most certainly not the fleabite from Nader voters, more’s the pity). Bush’s felon’s list fraud accounted for at most 173,000 votes; the “butterfly ballot” for at most 3,407. Like so much else, the “Bush stole Florida by 537 votes” and “Nader [neener neener neener]” are false.
 The creation of an aristocracy of inherited wealth is, in fact, just what one would expect from the conservative invocation of “family values.”