11/30/2005 03:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Time for Dems to Come Clean on Dirty Politics

Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi almost has it right. This week, after Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham pled guilty to charges of fraud, conspiracy to commit bribery and tax evasion, she said this was “the latest example of the culture of corruption that pervades the Republican-controlled Congress.”

Yes, this was the latest example of the culture of corruption in Congress, and yes, this Congress happens to be Republican controlled. But, Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats are missing a major opportunity if they intend to paint corruption as a purely Republican trait.

For starters, it just is not a credible charge and the American people know it. Polling done by Newsweek in 2003, showed that 70 percent of Americans believed the “political system is so controlled by special interests and partisanship that it cannot respond to the country's real needs.” The facts back up this hunch.

While former-Representative Cunningham has a few years behind bars in his future, Democratic Representative William Jefferson of New Orleans is the target of a credible Federal probe. At issue is whether Jefferson illegally made hundreds of thousands of dollars in business transactions. According to sources familiar with the case, Jefferson was also secretly recorded agreeing to invest money in a high-tech company, and to use his influence to steer business its way.

Congressman Bob Ney is now a target of a bribery case involving Jack Abramoff, the super-lobbyist now of growing infamy for the number of corruption scandals traced back to him. Yet, at the same time, it was recently revealed that Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat on the Senate panel investigating Abramoff, received donations from the Louisiana Coushatta Indians – an Abramoff client – after using his Senate position to help the tribe.

If neither the facts nor the polls are on Democrats’ side when they try to place blame on Republicans for the failure of our politics to serve the common man, then the Democrats will also fail to get the majority of people to follow their argument through to its flawed conclusion – that voting Republicans out will “solve” corruption.

The only argument that people will follow is that to change the culture in Washington, politicians must fundamentally change the system itself. In this argument lies a golden opportunity for the Democrats.

Crucifying the Republicans is not only a lame half-measure, it’s also politically counterproductive. Gleefully pointing out that somebody else is bad does not mean that you are good. The more the Democrats do it — the more they focus on identifying the other party’s weaknesses — the clearer it becomes that they’re doing it because they themselves lack strengths. Reveling in Republican malfeasance is disingenuous – one, because we all know Democrats do it, too; and two, endlessly identifying Republicans as part of the problem is too clearly a Democratic tactic to distract attention from the fact that the Democrats aren’t solving that same problem.

Instead of casting blame, Rep. Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and Democratic Chairman Howard Dean should stand up and accept that every politician – regardless of party –has been complicit in making Washington what it has become today. This statement of partial self blame may seem counterintuitive to good politics, but it is a premise that will be widely accepted by voters, keeping them open minded enough to hear what comes next.

The Democratic leaders should then announce that the very first act under a Democratic-controlled Congress would be to pass real campaign finance reform – Clean Elections.

This form of voluntary public financing of campaigns is the only proposal that is guaranteed to make special interest money a non-factor in politics. Here’s how it works. If you want to run for office as a Clean Elections candidate, you must raise a certain number of qualifying $5 contributions from your district to show some level of support from your constituents. The money goes to the Clean Elections Fund, not to your campaign. If you qualify, that’s it, you receive a check to fund your campaign, but you are forbidden from accepting any additional money. Should you run against a candidate who is not participating in the system, the Clean Money Fund will match what your opponent spends – dollar for dollar to a set amount – so that it’s unlikely you will ever be outspent.

On the state level, it is already showing dramatic results. In Arizona, the governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer and corporation commissioners were all Clean Election candidates, meaning they did not take one drop of special interest money. A Republican and Democrat in the Maine House of Representatives coauthored an op-ed that read, “We are happy to say that public funding has given us the freedom to spend more time with our constituents discussing important issues. We are no longer stuck in the "dialing for dollars" game, in which we would need to spend long hours on the phone asking special interest donors and lobbyists to contribute to our campaigns.”

Interestingly, this proposal has passed in red states and blue states – from Maine to North Carolina and Massachusetts to Arizona. Like fraud itself, the desire to fundamentally change the system crosses party lines. Backing Clean Elections could therefore win a good number of marginal districts for the Democrats, possibly enough to return control of Congress to them. Let Republicans try to oppose this earthquake of an idea, and explain to people why special interest money is needed in government.

It’s time Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats realize that the old adage might be right: Good policy is good politics.