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Why The Democratic Scandals Don't Matter (yet)

More and more these days, my morning newspaper reads like an ensemble comedy of errors cast entirely with Democrats: Bill Richardson probed! Blago busted! Charlie Rangel investigated! Eliot Spitzer ruined! Kwame Kilpatrick jailed! Bill "Freezer" Jefferson indicted! ... and so on. Ugh. Are the Democrats -- so recently awarded power as the clean alternative to the dirty DeLay generation of Republicans -- developing their own "culture of corruption" problem? Or could they, at least, be effectively painted as corrupt for the GOP's political gain in 2010 or 2012?

Republicans sure think so! The National Republican Congressional Committee is already blasting out Rangel-related mailers, and Michelle Malkin has been writhing around as gleefully as a five-year-old in a ball pit full of Blow-Pops: "[T]he Democrat 'culture of corruption' boomerang has returned to smack the donkeys right back in the face," she gushed in a recent column. (Unsatisfied with merely one giddy cliche, she added two more: "Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi can stop clucking now. [T]he corruption chickens are coming home to roost" and "The Democrats have met the culture of corruption, and it looks like it ain’t just elephants among the jackasses soiling public office." Not bad for 650 words.)

It's excruciating to watch all these Democrats clomp around in clown shoes. But, at least for now, it won't matter! Briefly, here's why not:

- Most of the Democratic scandals have been on the state or local level. That's not to say the figures involved aren't villains, but people are more likely both to assume state politics is dirtier than national politics (which I think is often true) and to attribute state-level corruption to local dissipation rather than the mores of the national party. It's important to remember that the GOP ethics problem of 2005-2006 involved Washington people like Bob Ney and Jack Abramoff, rather than state politicians like Haley Barbour. How many times have we heard that Blagojevich's crimes were "the Chicago way"? This kind of thinking is good for the Democrats.

- The Democratic scandals are not linked (and, to boot, are mostly so bizarre as to seem sui generis). What a great media narrative Abramoff made: A pious religious man makes a bargain with the devil and links up with a greedy Majority Leader. Soon, twelve Washington powerbrokers have been convicted, including a congressman. But where the common themes between the GOP scandals (inappropriate golf junkets, bilking Indian tribes) made them seem all part and parcel of a single corruption syndrome, the Democrats' scandals are not as clearly linked, so are less likely to seem symptomatic. (Spitzer was obsessed with sporting socks while Blagojevich was abnormally engrossed with his Paul Mitchell hairbrush: could there be a party-wide fetish problem?)

- The Democratic scandals do not involve top party leadership. Not yet. Harry Reid, please, please avoid Las Vegas for a little while.

- People do not yet think the Democratic president sucks. Let's face it: The Abramoff stuff (and then, towards the end, Mark Foley) only made a difference because the bloom was already off the GOP rose anyway, thanks to George W. Bush. 

Now, Democratic scandals certainly could develop the dreaded qualities I describe above. Second (or, for legislators, third or fourth or fifth) terms are dangerous, because Washington pols start to get tired of playing the $150K-remunerated workhorses while watching their peers lard it up at law firms or lobbying shops. But for the moment, if you're a Democrat, I wouldn't give yourself an ulcer over Bill Richardson (who, I must emphasize, might yet be innocent!), or his fellows. Although, memo to the NRCC: You're free to keep wasting your money on Rangel mailers.

--Eve Fairbanks