Zero Tolerance for Indicted Democrats

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    Bob Fertik
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Barack Obama is still 39 days away from being sworn in as President, but Republicans are already attacking him because he comes from the same state as discredited Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich. Isn't that incredible?

George Bush came from the same state as corrupt Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, but DeLay's corruption was never held against Bush. Once again we're back to the "Clinton Rules" - Democratic presidents are presumed guilty of every possible crime, no matter how bogus (i.e. Whitewater), while Republican presidents are presumed innocent of every possible crime, no matter how profound (i.e. Iraq War lies). (You can see the brand new "Obama Rules" in action at MSNBC, AP, Politico, etc.)

Since Election Day, Republicans have been casting about for their comeback strategy. It's obvious they will return to the strategy they used so successfully against President Clinton: painting Democrats as corrupt. Never mind George Bush, Jack Abramoff, and Ted Stevens; that will all be conveniently forgotten in time for the 2010 election so Republicans can play offense on corruption.

So how can Barack Obama and the Democratic Party win the high ground on corruption? Here's a simple proposal: the Democratic Party at all levels should adopt a zero-tolerance rule for federal indictments. Specifically, any elected or appointed Democrat who is indicted by a federal prosecutor should be called upon to resign immediately and should be disqualified from receiving party funds for the next election.

If that rule was in place now, Democratic leaders - including Barack Obama - could officially call on Blago to resign immediately, and back up that demand with a promise that he will get no party money in 2010. If that rule was in place when Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-LA) was indicted, it's extremely unlikely Democrats would have lost his seat this week.

It would be great to make resignation mandatory, but the Democratic Party has no legal enforcement power over elected officials - Howard Dean (or the Illinois Democratic chair) cannot take the Illinois governorship away from Rod Blagojevich. But the Democratic Party (both national and state) can deny him party-controlled funds for his reelection campaign. Democratic donors would be grateful, since money spent on indicted incumbents is usually goes right down the drain.

What are the drawbacks to this idea? The main one is the presumption of innocence: just because Blago has been indicted doesn't mean he's guilty. An even more extreme example is former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who was indicted, convicted and jailed - but is now waging a vigorous appeal because his indictment was a corrupt partisan act by Republican prosecutors who conspired with Karl Rove.

Still, corrupt federal prosecutions are relatively rare and should disappear on January 20 when all Rove-appointed prosecutors resign (or get the boot) and are replaced by ethically-vetted Democrats. These rare cases should not be used to shoot down a proposal whose benefits greatly outweigh its costs.

Moreover, the proposal is carefully worded to say the indicted Democrat should resign. If the Democrat believes the indictment is fraudulent, (s)he can refuse to resign and wage a vigorous publicity campaign to discredit it.

Politics is first and foremost about perceptions. An indicted politician may be presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, but most of the time is presumed guilty in the eyes of the voters. And voters are pretty good at distinguishing real indictments from bogus ones - and getting even better thanks to the great investigatory work of blogosphere. Every Democratic leader understands the difference, so the Democratic Party should take the high road and establish a zero-tolerance rule for indicted Democrats.