Was Blagojevich Just Too Crude?

[ Posted Tuesday, December 16th, 2008 – 18:34 UTC ]

This is not a follow up to what I wrote last Friday, because this isn't about Illinois Governor Blagojevich's "crude" language. Instead, I write today about Blaggy's crude tactics. Because I'm kind of having a hard time condemning him for doing almost the same thing as what other politicians do more successfully (and completely "legally") with a wink and a nod. There's a game, and there are certain rules to the game. Blaggy went a bit too far, and was caught. He is now paying the price. But what he "got caught" at isn't that all that different from what many (if not most) politicians -- of both parties -- do.

First, in the case of Jesse Jackson, Jr., what is alleged is that "friends" of Jesse met with Blagojevich and discussed promising a half of million dollars -- in political fundraising for Blagojevich. It wasn't a direct payment, in other words, it was a promise to help out with fundraising. Political fundraising is a legal activity. And these kind of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" deals are made every single day in Washington, D.C. Take Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I'm not Hillary-bashing here, I should point out, because these deals are made all the time by just about everyone. It's just the easiest example to make my point, that's all.

How is Barack Obama promising to help Hillary Clinton retire her campaign debt by appealing to his donors -- in exchange for her help on the campaign trail -- any different? All fully legal and "above board" and (tellingly) when this deal was being hammered out one of the bits of conventional wisdom flitting through the Washington talking heads was: "well, this sort of deal is common in this situation." Like I said, this is not about Hillary -- it's about the fact that these deals are so common. And not just at the presidential level, either, even if we don't hear about the smaller ones as often.

Some might say it's just human nature to help out those who have helped you out. I wouldn't necessarily disagree. Some of it seems legal, and according to Patrick Fitzgerald, some of it is illegal. I'll wait until Blaggy's trial to hear the legal argument from either side, but for now it just seems that Blagojevich didn't respect the "wink and nod" aspect of the game's rules, and instead put it on the table as a straight-up, no-chaser quid pro quo. In other words, Blaggy was just being crude about something that other politicians finesse enough not to break any laws.

The second major piece of the indictment (from what I hear, I haven't read it myself I should admit) is a complicated deal with the Chicago Tribune that involved giving them $100 million in tax breaks for selling the Chicago Cubs' stadium. The deplorable (and illegal, according to Fitzgerald) thing about the deal was Blaggy was trying to get some people at the Trib fired. They had written or edited things he didn't appreciate. Real machine politics at its worst.

But while I cannot help but condemn trying to get anyone in the journalism industry fired (other than for being a complete and blithering idiot, which would leave us with very few journalists after the purge... ahem), let's look at what Blaggy was offering. Tax breaks. Tweaking the tax code to benefit one company.

Once again, this sort of thing just doesn't happen all the time on Capitol Hill, it is actually the way our tax code is written. The full, unedited version of the tax code runs into the thousands of pages. There's a reason for this. Because a company (or even a whole industry) getting a tax loophole doesn't want to be obvious about it. So it gets couched in legalese that nobody else except that company benefits from, and the wool is pulled over everyone else's eyes. This is why many American corporations -- including some of the largest in the land -- pay no taxes on billions of dollars of profits. Because they, in essence, bribe Congressfolk to write the tax code to their benefit. They see it as a straight business proposition: spread around $20 million through lobbyists, and in return get $10 billion in tax breaks. It is cost-effective good business practice, in other words.

So while Blagojevich may go to prison for trying to get some editorial writers fired, the bigger scandal is the fact that what he offered the company is truly part of "politics as usual" and is not illegal when it is written into the federal tax code by Congress -- if they play the game right. Winks and nods abound. Money is donated to campaign warchests at slightly different times than when the actual legislation is written, and we're all supposed to pretend that no quid pro quo could possibly have happened.

Once again, Blaggy was crude where others are subtle. But the end result is the same -- big tax cuts for big corporations.

And as for getting his wife a cushy job, I would also say "I'm shocked! Shocked!" that any political spouse could get a cushy job somewhere. And no, I am not talking about Hillary Clinton again -- Clinton got elected by the people of New York state. She may have become the frontrunner in her first Senate campaign because of her husband, but she did not get the job that way. I'm talking instead about the Washington salons filled with wives who are on the board of some charity or in some other sinecure job -- solely as a result of being married to a Congressman or Senator.

All done with the appropriate winks and nods, of course.

Now some might say I'm trying to mitigate what Blagojevich did because he's a Democrat. "What about Ted Stevens?" they might well ask. Well, Stevens was even cruder than Blaggy. He personally benefited from his bribes, instead of just funneling the money into campaign cash. When Democrats do similar stupid things (William Jefferson's $90,000 in his freezer, for instance) I condemn them in equally harsh language.

I'm just saying that while Blaggy was being blunt and direct, a lot of what he is accused of is standard operating procedure for a whole bunch of politicians. They just play the game better. They know the rules to the game, and even if the F.B.I. was listening to every word they had to say, they would be guilty of no crime. Blagojevich may have given prosecutors enough evidence for them to put him in prison for a long time. But when I hear politicians blathering about how outrageous what Blaggy did was, I can't help thinking they're throwing a lot of stones from the glass house of American politics as usual.


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “Was Blagojevich Just Too Crude?”

  1. [1] 
    LewDan wrote:


    The fact that its ubiquitous doesn't mean it isn't corruption. Its exactly what I mean when I think of our government as being corrupt. Its only the inability to prove a direct quid pro quo that keeps it from being illegal in most cases. Fitzgerald has that here. Its not the clumsiness, its the audio recordings that set Blago apart.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Interesting food-for-thought article in a similar vein as mine:

    It has more details to back up the basic argument, and is well-written and worth a read.


  3. [3] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Yep... Now I'm askin' Santa fot A LOT more for Fitzmas!

  4. [4] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    "Blago." It sounds like a vampire name...

    Chris, the word 'politics' comes from the same root as 'polite.' As you say, the crime here is not what Blagojevich tried to do, rather it is how impolite he was in trying to do it. He was, in a word, impolitic.

    Ridiculous as this may be to us postmodern types, it has parallels throughout human society. For instance, I cannot walk up to an attractive woman and say, "Excuse me, but I would like to have sex with you." I would get slapped, insulted, and thrown out of places.

    Yet this is the subtext of millions of male-female conversations every single day. A frank discussion of desires would sound like a transaction, and there is nothing romantic about prostitution. Yes, social requirements hold the male responsible for treating the female to dinner and a movie, which one might regard as a **form** of transaction; but there is no written or verbal agreement of a trade precisely because we want the illusion of romance.

    Blagovich may or may not have done anything unusual, just as one-night stands are not unusual, but he will suffer the consequences of his impolitic actions the same as I would suffer for trying to pick up dates with cash.

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