Why Voters See Crooks in All Corners of Politics

From a Wall Street Journal story by Annie Linskey and Simon J. Levien headlined “Why Voters See Crooks in All Corners of Politics”:

When news broke this past week that presidential son Hunter Biden reached a plea deal for tax and firearm offenses, congressional Republicans called for a wider investigation to root out corruption in President Biden’s family.

Their desire for deep scrutiny arrived exactly a week after former President Donald Trump appeared in a federal courtroom in Miami and pleaded not guilty to charges that he illegally kept classified national-security documents after leaving the White House. That added to a string of legal woes Democrats are using to discredit the leading 2024 GOP presidential contender, including charges tied to porn-star hush-money payments and a Georgia investigation into potential 2020 election interference.

While Hunter Biden’s wrongdoings haven’t been directly connected to the president, that might matter little to voters who have come to see criminality as woven into all corners of American politics. The unfolding 2024 campaign is shaping up as one in which each party accuses the other of criminality, with the cumulative effect being the steady erosion of public trust in the U.S. political system.

“Trying to convince voters that politicians are corrupt is really pushing on open doors,” said Mick Mulvaney, a onetime acting chief of staff to Trump who also helmed his Office of Management and Budget. “Most voters think that politicians they don’t like are corrupt.”

History is littered with examples of presidential candidates calling their opponents crooks, from the days of George McGovern’s campaign against Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal to Trump’s supporters chanting “Lock Her Up” as the Justice Department investigated his rival Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified emails. But perhaps never has the U.S. electorate been so primed to believe the worst about those it puts in office.

Just 20% of Americans said they have trust in government officials to do what is right almost always or most of the time, a near record low, according to a Pew Research Center study last year that includes data going back to 1958. The high point was in 1964, when 77% expressed such trust.

The White House officially kept silent when Trump was arraigned in Miami, and the Democratic National Committee and Biden’s re-election campaign followed that lead in an effort to appear above the fray and avoid politicizing the court proceeding.

Other Democratic Party leaders didn’t hold back. Speaking on the House floor this past week, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D., Md.) described Trump as the “twice impeached, inciter of insurrections, sexual abuser, defamer of women and indicted pilferer of national security secrets, war plans and top secret classified documents.”

Rep. Dean Phillips (D., Minn.) tweeted after Trump’s Florida court appearance, “We don’t need a judge or jury to determine if his destruction of decency and dangerous incompetence continues to stain America.”

Trump has said he is not guilty of the state charges he faces in New York or the federal offenses brought against him earlier this month. After appearing in a Miami court to face charges of illegally possessing boxes of classified material including information about American nuclear programs, Trump lashed out at the justice system, calling the proceeding against him the “most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country.”

Democratic voters see Trump as a uniquely corrupt politician and a threat to the country. “I don’t care what political party you are. If you are using the system in a way that is illegal, you should be investigated,” said Timothy Weal, a 31-year-old Democrat who lives near Orlando, Fla., and works for an education software company.

On the right, leaders have castigated the legal system that charged Trump and many of his associates with several offenses. They make the case that investigators aren’t trying hard enough to uncover evidence that Biden is guilty of wrongdoing.

“Our system is BROKEN!” Trump declared on Truth Social in reacting to Hunter Biden’s plea deal. The Justice Department under President Biden is “pathetic and weaponized,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.). House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) pledged to double down on congressional investigations into what the party calls the “Biden crime family.”

None of The Wall Street Journal’s reporting has found that Joe Biden was involved in his son’s business activities. “I’m very proud of my son,” Biden said after the plea deal became public.

The GOP-led House Oversight and Accountability Committee has made investigating Biden’s family a priority, and has a section of its website dedicated to that probe. Speaking on Fox News last month, Rep. James Comer (R., Ky.), who chairs the committee, connected Biden’s middling approval rating to the probe. “The media is looking around, scratching their head, and they’re realizing the American people are keeping up with our investigation,” Comer said.

Trump supporters see a more lenient standard of justice being applied to the Biden family. “If you’re rich or you’re a Democrat, you get not even a slap on the wrist,” said Brian Carver, a 42-year-old libertarian in Fort Collins, Colo., who retired from the military and is pursuing a pilot’s license. “If you’re a Republican like Trump, they’re going to try to ruin your career, your family’s career, and make sure that you’re never heard from again.”

Carver is of the view that Hunter Biden’s plea deal suggests there is additional wrongdoing to be uncovered. This, he said, is “just the tip of the spear.”

In recent history, many of the corruption charges U.S. presidential candidates have lobbed at their opponents have landed with a thud. In 1972, running against the Republican incumbent, President Nixon, the Democratic presidential nominee, McGovern, attempted to make hay out of the emerging Watergate scandal.

McGovern revved up Democrats on the stump by predicting that voters would send a strong message to Nixon on Election Day to “take your bungling, bugging burglars and get out of the White House.” Audiences embraced the rhetoric. Voters did not. McGovern lost every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

The modern playbook of painting an opponent as corrupt took hold in the late 1990s during Bill Clinton’s presidency, said Timothy Naftali, a professor at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. During Clinton’s first term in the White House, an independent counsel investigated his financial dealings in Arkansas, which led to a sprawling and multifaceted investigation.

These investigations did little to damage Clinton’s political fortunes; he was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1996. “What stuck was the stain on the reputation of the Clintons, which we saw return when Hillary Clinton was the candidate,” Naftali said, referring to her failed presidential bid. In his second term, Bill Clinton was investigated for lying under oath about an extramarital affair, which led to impeachment.

Running against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump resurrected Clinton-era scandals and added newer ones, including questions on whether she improperly handled classified materials by using a personal server and email for government business. Trump cited her email when prompting supporters to chant, “Lock Her Up.” The Justice Department eventually determined that Clinton shouldn’t face charges for her email practices.

Stuart Stevens, once a Republican strategist who left the GOP after becoming disillusioned with Trump, said the “Lock Her Up” chants from Trump supporters were about casting Clinton as part of a ruling elite who was responsible for narrowing their opportunities. Voters, he said, were attempting to say, “We’re mad at the world because the world isn’t treating us well.”

Democrats hope it will be more challenging to cast Biden as an avatar of political corruption by pointing to the deal reached by his son and the Justice Department.

“Biden’s attack on Trump’s corruption is a direct hit that’s being covered fairly and honestly in the newspapers, and it’s on multiple fronts,” said Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster who worked on Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. “Whereas the attack on Hunter Biden is a bank shot. And I think direct attacks and direct hits are much more potent and are going to ring much more true.”

Speak Your Mind