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Dems take aim at the Republicans' 'culture of corruption'

Twelve years after Dems took aim at the Republicans' "culture of corruption," the message and strategy are back. This time, it's actually a little stronger.
Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The circumstances may sound familiar: in 2006, the nation had an unpopular Republican president, who was struggling despite a fairly strong economy, working with a Republican-led Congress. Democrats believed there was a public backlash brewing, which gave them a shot at retaking control of the House, the Senate, or both.

To that end, Dems focused at least some of their energies on targeting the GOP's "culture of corruption" -- a theme made possible by a series of Republican scandals surrounding officials whose names may be familiar to those who were engaged at the time: Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Mark Foley, et al.

The message resonated, and voters rewarded Democrats with control of Congress. Twelve years later, the party believes a similar opportunity exists.

Democrats are going to make prosecuting what they called a "culture of corruption" in President Donald Trump's administration a central theme of this year's midterm elections, the party's congressional leaders signaled Monday."The swamp has never been more foul or more feted than under this president," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said at a news conference on the Capitol steps.

This year, the GOP's problem is less about scandals on Capitol Hill and more about scandals in the White House -- which congressional Republicans are ignoring and enabling. It's an issue quite a few observers have picked up on: Vox had a piece in March urging Democrats to make Donald Trump's corruption "a central issue in the 2018 midterms." BuzzFeed published an item the same week that said, "The real threat to Trump isn't Russia, racism, or incompetence; it's corruption."

Jon Chait added in April that "the best way" for Democrats to reclaim power is to shine a light on Trump's corruption.

But what was especially interesting about the Dems' newly unveiled push is the policy agenda included in the message.

In 2006, the Democratic message was, in effect, "Republicans are corrupt so Americans should vote them out of power." In 2018, however, they're effectively saying, "Republicans are corrupt so Americans should vote them out of power -- so that we can pass institutional reforms."

Party leaders yesterday proposed a "democracy reform agenda," featuring a variety of good-government ideas including changes to gerrymandering, new voting measures, strengthening restrictions on lobbying, and campaign-finance measures targeting "dark money" groups.

There's room for discussion about the merits of individual provisions and their prospects, but the point is that Dems see this as a potent issue on which Republicans are vulnerable.

It worked for Democrats the last time they were in this position; don't assume it won't work again.