Pelosi seizes on anti-corruption message against GOP
Melanie Zanona, The Hill
August 14, 2018
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is moving full steam ahead on a Democratic strategy to paint the GOP as corrupt ahead of the midterm elections, a case that got new legs after the arrest of Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) on insider trading charges last week.
Pelosi has decided to make ethics a core pillar of House Democrats’ push for the majority this fall, seizing on Collins’s arrest in a way she hasn’t done with past GOP scandals involving Trump administration officials.
But with Collins, a sitting member of Congress and Trump's earliest congressional backer, Pelosi believes that Democrats have a ripe opportunity to draw a connection between the president and House Republicans who are on the ballot this November.
While it’s unclear whether the message will resonate with voters amid a seemingly never-ending stream of Trump controversies, Pelosi, who deployed a similar strategy in the 2006 midterms, which first handed her the Speakership, is going all-in on the idea ahead of November. “The Collins case is another brick in the wall. It makes the linkage between Trump’s broken promise to drain the swamp and House Republicans,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “It shows voters that instead of cleaning up the swamp, that the swamp has just become more poisonous. It’s a very useful strategy to go after Collins and make the connection to Trump.”
Pelosi, who has called on Collins to resign, sent out a letter last week urging Democrats to make the case during the August recess that they need to be put back in charge so they can clean up the GOP’s “brazen corruption, cronyism and incompetence.”
Pelosi then went on MSNBC over the weekend to argue that Republicans are putting special interests above the American people.
“There's a real clarity now in the obstacle that their culture of corruption is doing to impede better policy,” Pelosi said Sunday on “AM Joy.” “Members of Congress should not be sitting on boards of companies, especially those whose are impacted by policies — policy decisions and the government — so this is appalling, but it shows the brazenness of it all.”
Prosecutors allege that while serving on the board of pharmaceutical company Innate Immunotherapeutics, Collins gave nonpublic information about drug trial results to his family in order to make advantageous trades and to help avoid losing hundreds of thousands in investments.
Collins, who calls the charges against him “meritless,” has decided to suspend his reelection bid.
The FBI alleges that Collins tipped off his son while standing on the White House lawn during the annual Congressional Picnic — a metaphor too tempting for Democrats to resist.
“There’s something poetic about the fact that he was making these insider trading calls from the White House picnic,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who has been spearheading Democrats’ anti-corruption efforts with Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.). “In a sense, he sort of wandered into an ethics-free zone, and he couldn’t help himself. That’s the way this White House has operated.”
Almost immediately after Trump’s inauguration, Sarbanes approached Pelosi with a presentation suggesting that Democrats should start pushing the narrative that the Trump administration is unethical and self-serving.
While Pelosi cautioned it was too early to start selling that argument to voters, she put Sarbanes in charge of a task force where he could start building a case and conducting rigorous oversight of the administration.
"If you tell people right after they voted that this is going to be the most ethically challenged president and administration in modern history, they won't believe you,” said one Democratic aide. “You've got to let the narrative play itself out."
As chairman of the Democracy Reform Task Force, Sarbanes has kept tabs on the Trump administration’s potential ethics violations, highlighted how special interests are influencing politics in Washington and developed Democratic proposals for reform.
Now, after fine-tuning the message for more than a year, it’s ready to be deployed on the campaign trail.
“The Democrats, through the Democracy Reform Task Force, have really positioned our caucus well, and our candidates in the field well, to push the anti-corruption framework to say we stand against a rigged system,” Sarbanes said. “We wanted to assemble a robust effort on that front.”
“I think we are well equipped now to make that case to the electorate,” he added.
There has been plenty of fodder for Sarbanes’s efforts, from former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who resigned after reports of his lavish, taxpayer-funded travel, to Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who is currently on trial for bank- and tax-fraud charges.
But with so many controversies coming out of the White House, Democrats, including Pelosi, have sometimes had to choose their battles.
For months, Democrats were pounding the tables over former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who was embroiled in a string of ethics scandals, but they eventually had to move on after it appeared Trump was not going to fire him. Pruitt did end up resigning in July.
"We have to be judicious about which battles we take on given the magnitude of scandal,” said the Democratic aide. “We have a president who can't be shamed into doing the right thing by the American people. That’s been the challenge."
The message, however, appears to be gaining steam in the wake of Collins’s arrest, which comes less than 90 days before the midterm elections.
"This corruption message has been gelling for months. The Chris Collins arrest brings it front-and-center in the battle for the House,” said Doug Thornell, former press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The problem for Republicans is that we are not dealing with an isolated incident. Almost every day there is a new scandal around administration officials using their power to enrich themselves or abusing their power.”
And it's not just Trump administration officials in the hot seat. In addition to Collins, Democrats have also drawn attention to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who is under investigation for allegations that he misused campaign money.
Pelosi had success using a similar strategy when Democrats won back the House in 2006.
After the lobbying scandal involving Jack Abramoff and the congressional page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), it was Pelosi who was urging voters to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
But it’s unclear whether positioning Democrats as the anti-corruption party will work this time around, especially when the public is so polarized and when Trump’s popularity with his base seems to be immune to most controversies.
The strategy could also backfire, as Democrats haven’t been completely without controversy: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has faced a corruption trial of his own.
“Would advise some caution to Democrats, each time they say Collins, Republicans are going to yell Menendez,” said Dan Ronayne, who was press secretary of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2006.
Still, some Democratic strategists predict that the slew of ethics scandals could turn off independents and depress voter turnout among suburban and college-educated Republicans. Those are key voting blocs in the path to the majority, which could be fueling Pelosi’s eagerness to dive head first into the anti-corruption messaging strategy.
“Many Republicans in the upper-middle-class suburbs are sick to death of all the stuff that’s going on in Washington,” Bannon said. “There has to be a fall guy. And if it’s not going to be Trump, it’s going to be House Republicans.”
Lisa Hagen contributed.