In Politics, It Isn’t Easy Being Clean

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


“If you can’t take their money, drink their booze, eat their food, screw their women and vote against them, you don’t belong here,” the late California Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh famously said.   That observation capsulizes the disconnect between the world views of Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Senator Sanders and Donald Trump rail about politicians being beholden to “special interests” and a lot of voters are eating it up.  Sanders’ supporters, like their candidate, more than imply that taking campaign contributions and speaking fees from banks, oil companies and unions automatically makes politicians “corrupt.”  On the other hand, officials like President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Clinton and California’s Governor Jerry Brown insist that voters should look at what they’ve done in office and not just at who are large contributors to their campaigns.

Unruh also underscored the reality that “money is the mother’s milk of politics”.   In a national contest, or in down-ballot races in big states like California, New York, Texas and Florida, effective campaigning generally requires advertising, direct mail and organization—all of which cost money.  When the late Vice President and former Sen. Alban Barkley was asked what makes a great senator. Barkley pondered the question. Grand oratorical skills? Not really. A sharp intellect? Not necessarily. Finally, Barkley replied, “To be a great senator, first you have to get elected.”

Throughout Senator Sanders’ career, until now, he has operated in a small state environment.  In Vermont, people have an opportunity to get to know each other and media buys don’t count for that much.  In this campaign, he has struck gold on the internet as a movement candidate.  Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has spent more than thirty years in the rough and tumble of hard ball politics—from down and dirty Arkansas and the tumultuous nationalcampaigns and Presidency of Bill Clinton to her New York Senate races and her own presidential campaign in 2008.  Obviously, Sanders and Clinton have different perspectives on how politics works and should work.

There is no question that political money distorts the democratic process in terms of both campaigning and governing.    Yet, as long as the First Amendment stands, attempts at reform have mostly made things worse—driving money further underground.

There is an irony in the clamor about so-called Super-PACs; they have been conspicuously ineffective in this presidential cycle.  Just ask Jeb Bush.  The true beneficiaries have been the campaign consultants who pocket millions of dollars in fees from nearly limitless contributions to these “independent expenditure” committees.

The real question for voters is how a candidate will govern.  It is noteworthy that Hilary Clinton’s greatest policy failure occurred during the first two years of her husband’s administration, when she tried to push through a healthcare plan without engaging with the issue’s major interest groups and stakeholders. An effective officeholder must deal with all of the interests—business, labor, environmentalists, et al—as well as with other electeds.  For better or worse, campaign contributions are part of that interaction.

Unruh was known as a tough political player and he brought big-time, leader-centric fundraising to the California Legislature, even before Congress got into the act. But he also successfully authored the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which was passed by the California Legislature in 1959, more than three years before the March on Washington turned the searing spotlight on federal inaction. Unruh was cozy with business movers-and-shakers and corporate titans, but he also sponsored a wide range of consumer legislation, including the Credit Reporting Act of 1959, which protected Californians who buy on installment plans.

Beholden to Wall Street for campaign money? Maybe…but, later, as California State Treasurer, Unruh helped craft a shareholders’ rights movement that continues to impact Wall Street in the 21st century.

In the political arena, there are few white hats and black hats.  The real work gets done in the grey areas. Bernie Sanders is right that the political system is dodgy, but that can’t be fixed by merely fulminating against it.   To be effective–to get things done–a president must be able to swim in shark infested waters without forfeiting his or her principles. That’s a reality that many disillusioned voters will not or cannot embrace.

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