Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Trying To Rank Scandals, Phase Three: Separating Schadenfreude From Serious Scandal

The scandal of the last two weeks - the ongoing BridgeGate matter of Chris Christie, which is becoming more like BullyGate well heck BullyGate's taken by the Dolphins, what are we gonna call the blocking of relief funds to Hoboken - has a parallel scandal erupting in another state (Virginia) as I write tonight: the ongoing federal corruption probe into former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife has led to 14 counts of corruption handed down by the grand jury investigation.

McDonnell addressed media hours after a federal grand jury delivered a 14-count indictment against the governor and his wife, Maureen. The charges stem from state and federal inquiries into the couple's relationship with a prominent donor, Jonnie R. Williams, the head of a dietary supplements manufacturer. Williams showered the McDonnells and their family with gifts and favorable loans, but the former governor insisted all have been repaid and none of the gifts were meant as a way to curry favor.

Based on the previous article I wrote, these is seriously damaging to McDonnell's political career: Corruption scandals hurt more than any of the others (Financial, Sexual, Political).

The charges represent a stunning fall from grace for McDonnell, the Republican governor from a swing state that doubles as a political seat of power. Mitt Romney considered the governor as a potential running mate in 2012, before the 2013 trial of a former executive chef for McDonnell on unrelated charges unearthed details about the governor's relationship with Williams.

McDonnell's early response to this has been to avoid blame by pointing out he never did favors in exchange for all these gifts, and arguing that if what he did was truly criminal the federal prosecutors would have to arrest every other politician from Obama on down.  I'm slightly surprised he didn't outright blame his political opponents or any "vast liberal conspiracy".

Because, let's be fair, the ones most likely to push any criminal or corruption investigation would be your political opponents.

This is THE problem with creating an honest-to-goodness ranking system for political scandals: It's that there is a bias one way or another over each and every scandal (and inflated non-scandal) when they erupt.  Even when there is a legitimate crime taking place, like covering up illegal wiretapping, or selling arms to Iran and then using that money to fund rebel forces in Central America, or outing a covert CIA operative as political payback: there is a bias to the force that pushes those investigations into the open.

And it's not exactly wrong for an opposition party or faction to be obsessed with finding fault with the person or party in charge.  Just look to those nations with one-party or authoritarian regimes (cough China cough): without an outside faction with some legitimacy and ability to investigate, corrupt forces within that one party will remain unchecked until serious disaster happens. And by then - with hundreds if not thousands dead, or with a government bank bled dry - it'd be too late.  This is the one advantage democratic institutions have: opposition parties help keep the other parties (relatively) honest, or at least give the disgruntled suffering masses another banner to rally to.

The problem with a partisan investigation is the schadenfreude that propels it, the malicious joy the opposition forces are feeling whenever their hated rival(s) are stewing in a hell of his/her/their own making.  That schadenfreude - that desire to humiliate the suspected wrong-doer not only for the crime committed but for merely existing - may drive the investigation into improper actions all its own.

What happened to Bill Clinton is a perfect example.  By 1992 there were legitimate questions into Bill and Hillary's financial dealings in land developments, well enough that by 1993 a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate.  The original investigator had been appointed by Clinton's AG (Janet Reno), but the courts determined there was a conflict of interest and so appointed Ken Starr, who was scrupulous enough to have served as a judge but was partisan (conservative Republican).  Driven and supported by anti-Clinton factions both in private and in Congress, Starr dug into every rumor and every misdeed in an attempt to get "something" on Clinton, even when it didn't relate to Whitewater (or to the Vincent Foster suicide, which was included in Starr's investigation).  In the end, all Starr could turn up was a college-age intern named Lewinsky who had an adulterous affair with the married President.  That was pretty much all Starr and the Republicans had on Clinton when Congress pushed for impeachment.  All it did was make the Republicans look like idiots and haters to the majority of Americans, and Clinton left office unimpeached and (still) popular.  All because Clinton's attackers overreached.

To a lesser extent, the investigation into the Valerie Plame reveal has a partisan edge as well.  A serious security breach occurred when one (or more) White House officials leaked to various columnists that the wife of Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who criticized Bush the Lesser's assertions that Saddam Hussein had secured weapons-grade uranium, was working for the CIA (implying that Wilson was siding with the CIA, which opposed Bush and Cheney's assertions about Iraqi WMD efforts, because of who his wife was).  Problem is, revealing a covert agent (No Official Cover, or NOC) is a serious federal felony (doing so has gotten people killed).  The investigations got as high up the chain of command as Karl Rove and "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's Chief of Staff.  The far left - which opposed the Iraqi invasion, and was horrified by Bush the Lesser's entire administration - openly pined for the grand jury probe headed by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to line up every possible suspect - from Cheney to Rove to even Bush himself - for indictment.  Just Google (tm) search the word "Fitzmas": there was literally a high level of giddiness among the liberal columnists that the Plame investigation would bring an end to the Bush/Cheney regime.  It ended up indicting just one person - Libby - while letting Rove (who was caught lying multiple times to the FBI) and Richard Armitage (revealed to be the one who DID leak Plame's employment) and Cheney (whose office benefited most from destroying the CIA's credibility) off the hook.  The best that could be said about Fitzgerald's efforts is that he didn't let the schadenfreude get the better of his investigation: but it was there, at least in the media coverage.

What's going on right now with Obama's administration is another example.  There's been an obsession by the GOP House - alongside their far right media supporters - to investigate (almost) every little thing that has happened and is happening.  Rep. Darrell Issa, head of the Congressional Oversight committee, has been pursuing a handful of "scandals" - an IRS regional office investigating partisan superPACs like Tea Party organizations, the failure of security at the Benghazi embassy that left four dead, a gun-smuggling operation involving ATF that got out of control - that most observers (both Right and Left) deem as attempts to get impeachment proceedings established.  But Issa's investigations, even after months (now years) of digging, have led nowhere: official investigations into all three haven't turned up the "holy grail" of evidence that Obama had a hand in any of them, or even that Obama's major allies (Hillary Clinton (again), AG Holder) were complicit or committed crimes.  What's driving Issa's investigations is the hatred the Far Right have for Obama, to the point where the Republicans are convinced that Obama is guilty of all of these things regardless of the uncovered facts and that all they need is the flimsiest thread (my Shoelace Hypothesis) they can find to stop him.  That partisan need is blinding the Far Right, making them cry Wolf every hour of every day.

So the big question: how can we separate schadenfreude - worse, partisan anger - from what's deemed scandalous?  How can we establish a truthful measurement of a scandal and its importance that's not blinded by political opposition?  What can we agree on is a true scandal and not a witch-hunt?

I'll save that for Phase Four...

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