Democrats Roll Out Anti-Corruption Message for 2018

Democrats Roll Out Anti-Corruption Message for 2018
AP Photo/Paul Holston, File
Democrats Roll Out Anti-Corruption Message for 2018
AP Photo/Paul Holston, File
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As part of their midterm pitch to voters, congressional Democrats are unveiling a series of policy proposals Monday aimed at cleaning up a "culture of corruption" in Washington.

In other words: Drain the swamp.

The party says it isn't stealing the slogan and sentiment that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House. Instead, Democrats are returning to an anti-corruption message that helped win back the House of Representatives in 2006 against the backdrop of scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and lawmakers Tom DeLay and Mark Foley. A decade later, Trump seized on a similar theme, directing voter ire at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton along with lawmakers of both parties in the nation's capital. And now, with Michael Cohen, Scott Pruitt and others in Trump's orbit under scrutiny, Democrats believe they have a compelling case to make against the current administration and Republicans in Congress.

"The American people are sick of getting a raw deal from Washington and they’re tired of broken promises to ‘drain the swamp,’” reads a memo from Democratic leaders outlining various government reform proposals. "It’s an endless cycle taken to a completely unprecedented level under President Trump, demonstrating a blatant disregard for the laws and norms in place to prevent public corruption."

The message is the newest installment in the party's agenda promising "A Better Deal." Focused on jobs and wages, the pitch has been largely overshadowed at the national level by daily controversies emanating from the White House and incremental news leaks about the Russia collusion investigation.

The new reform component is aimed at the Trump administration and includes policy proposals to rein in the influence of lobbyists and high-powered donors and to beef up related ethics laws. Included are calls to pass campaign reform laws designed to empower small donors, and to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on political spending. In addition, the plan features proposals aimed at voting rights, safeguarding election infrastructure, and ending party-directed redistricting.

The rollout comes amid reports that Trump attorney Cohen used his proximity to the president to secure high-paid consulting contracts. Meanwhile, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is the subject of a dozen federal investigations involving his renting of an underpriced condo from an energy lobbyist, unwarranted travel and office expenses, questionable hiring practices, and other management issues. Last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned over a scandal involving pricey travel expenses.

"President Trump, when it comes to draining the swamp, has been a complete and total disappointment," Sen. Chuck Schumer said Monday on the steps of the Capitol, where he discussed the new message. The minority leader called for "closing the Cohen loophole" to prevent a president's associates from selling access, and he referred to the current administration as "the swamp Cabinet."

Democratic strategists and operatives have been urging candidates to focus on an economic message instead of a pure anti-Trump one this year, arguing that pocketbook issues like income, health care and education costs draw more voter support.

But while the anti-corruption pillar of the agenda is focused on Trump and Republicans, Democrats believe it fits into their broader economic message that administration policies benefit the wealthy and corporations more than average Americans.

"President Trump promised to fight for the forgotten American, yet Republican-controlled Washington continues business as usual, rewarding the wealthy, privileged and well-connected at the expense of middle class and working families," the Democratic memo reads. "Look no further than Congressional Republicans’ and President Trump’s agenda: billions in tax cuts for the rich, massive giveaways to special interests and the full-frontal corporate assault on workers’ rights and consumers’ protections."

Republicans argue that the new tax law is putting more money into workers’ pockets and that the improving economy and lowest unemployment rate in two decades will resonate with voters in November. Campaigning in the current economic climate could be a challenge for Democrats, even with all the built-in advantages they have heading into the midterms. And GOP campaigns are aiming to motivate constituents with warnings that Democrats would unravel the party's policy gains and obstruct the president's agenda.

With their revamped anti-corruption pitch, Democrats are characterizing GOP lawmakers as more focused on their donors than their constituents. Public polling data compiled by the Democratic group Navigator Research found that 49 percent of Americans believe Republicans in Congress use government to personally enrich themselves, while 34 percent believe the same about Democrats.

However, the survey also found that when Democrats are compared to Trump instead of to Republicans in Congress, voters see both sides as equally guilty of corruption. "For advocates and policy makers who want to engage with the concerns of constituents, it’s important to speak credibly to the corrupting influence of campaign donors on the agenda in Washington," reads the polling report.

Democrats, of course, have had their own cast of characters with corruption bull’s-eyes painted on them. Clinton was the top target in 2016. And that same year, Florida Rep. Corrine Brown was indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges (she later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison). And Pennsylvania Rep. Chaka Fattah was convicted on over 20 corruption-related charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

When it comes to Trump, Democrats see a different kind of opening on corruption, centered on his pledge to shake things up and break D.C. norms. The Navigator surveys found voters were more concerned about abuse of power and conflicts of interest than his demeanor in office. Sixty-six percent said Trump breaks rules set up to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest by government officials while 33 percent said he breaks rules set up to preserve the honor and dignity of the presidency.

"Americans find Trump’s unconventional nature most concerning when the behavior is viewed as abusing power and ignoring standards that protect against conflicts of interest," read the polling memo.

In Monday's messaging rollout, congressional Democrats argue that while corruption appears to be a perpetual theme in Washington, it has been taken to an "unprecedented level under President Trump, demonstrating a blatant disregard for the laws and norms in place to prevent public corruption."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurns.

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