The odds are high that this autumn members of Congress — maybe both Democrats and Republicans — will pocket campaign contributions from Americans who will later be engulfed in scandal. The besmirched political donors could be exposed as Ponzi scheme promoters, corrupt corporate executives, crooked lawyers or sex offenders.
Amid the predictable uproar when the news stories break, there will be loud partisan cries to return all campaign contributions from these disgraced figures. And so congressional incumbents will scramble to explain a half-forgotten $2,700 check from a fundraiser and a hastily scrawled “To My Dear Friend ...” inscription on a photograph from the event.
Two years ago, Republicans like Paul Ryan were under pressure to repudiate prior campaign contributions from Denny Hastert, the prison-bound former House speaker. Now it’s the Democrats who are reeling in embarrassment, as Harvey Weinstein has gone from being known as the Academy Award-winning producer of “Shakespeare in Love” to the central character in a drama called “Skeevy Producer in Lust.”
Weinstein, who along with his family has donated about $1.4 million to Democratic causes in the past quarter-century, has spurred an uptick in charitable donations. Prominent senators like Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker raced to announce that they were re-gifting the Weinstein money to causes such as shelters for battered women and survivors of domestic violence.
Republicans, devoid of any sense of shame, are gleefully playing guilt-by-association bingo. Talking points distributed by the Republican National Committee and obtained by the Daily Beast sneeringly ask, “What does it say if several members of the [Democratic] Party would rather keep their campaign cash than speak out against a man accused of sexual harassment?”
Republicans, of course, always behave as perfect gentlemen in mixed company. Just think of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly or a certain former reality-show host who was dumb enough to brag about groping women on an “Access Hollywood” tape.
The RNC talking points are emblematic of why politics has become a house of ill repute. These days, there is no partisan argument that is too cretinous or too hypocritical to be brandished against the opposition. For the Republicans — with Trump in the White House — to portray the Democrats as uniquely solicitous of sexual predators assumes that the typical American voter is an amnesiac with the intellect of a dead flashlight battery.
None of this is to deny that Weinstein had dozens of enablers, including a few in Democratic politics. With Weinstein offering an easy entree to Hollywood glamor, it was tempting to ignore the vague rumors about his personal conduct. As a result, the former first family obviously skimped on due diligence this year when they arranged for Malia Obama to serve an internship with the Weinstein Company.
Most Democratic senators who solicited and received Weinstein’s campaign cash probably gave the entire transaction little thought. Weinstein was not a felon, a foreigner or a business fraud, so his contributions never set off any alarm bells. No one in politics has ever articulated a policy of accepting campaign cash only from donors of proven high moral character.
A bare-bones (these days) $10-million Senate campaign requires at minimum more than 3,700 individual contributors each giving the legal maximum ($2,700). So how much is a candidate realistically expected to know about the sexual conduct and business dealings of each of these 3,700 donors?
This does not mean that a congressional incumbent is automatically off the hook if a close friend and loyal donor is indicted for bank fraud. And it is certainly legitimate to ask questions if a senator spent the Christmas holidays at the vacation home of someone now accused of sexual misconduct. But all this presupposes a much closer relationship than merely cashing campaign checks.
‘A sense of proportion’
What is needed here, as in so much else in politics, is a sense of proportion. Instead, we have a lynch-mob atmosphere where every Democrat who ever attended a private screening of a Harvey Weinstein movie is vulnerable to GOP attack.
By now, sharp-eyed readers may have noticed a name that has not yet been mentioned in this column: Hillary Clinton. And yes, it is worth noting that the 2016 Democratic nominee was paralyzed for five days before she finally admitted she was “sick” and “appalled” about the charges against Weinstein.
In the world according to Fox News, every sex scandal is obligated to have a Clinton angle. But in truth, who at this point really cares about the latest laboriously crafted statement coming from Hillary? She is — for better or worse — yesterday’s news, despite Donald Trump’s undying obsession with her emails.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Oval Office sex scandal that prompted congressional Republicans to imprudently attempt to impeach Bill Clinton. At the time, too many leading Democrats made the mistake of casting Clinton as unfairly accused when the real victim was Monica Lewinsky, who paid a grossly unfair price for the sin of being a star-struck White House intern.
The hypocrisy of Bill Clinton’s defenders — many of them passionate feminists — did lasting damage to the Democratic Party. But we are now in a different century and a different moral climate. And it seems ludicrous to imply that Democrats are somehow to blame for the loutish behavior of Harvey Weinstein.
This is why the empty ritual of returning campaign contributions is so dispiriting. In case you haven’t noticed, politicians are not the moral guardians of the universe. Being responsible for their own conduct in a do-nothing Congress seems to be enough of a daunting challenge for today’s legislators.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.