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What Convicted Governor Rod Blagojevich Taught Me About Hillary Clinton

6 min read

With primary season at an end, it appears that Democratic delegates won’t come to their senses and nominate a candidate who can unite the party to defeat Trump. Bernie Sanders supporters who listened to months of condescending, belittling language of force about accepting Hillary Clinton as the inevitable nominee will now suffer through a few more months of fear mongering, shaming, guilt-tripping lectures about supporting her because Trump is the new Hitler.

But, panicked warnings about the dangers of voting third party are irrelevant to the large majority of Americans who don’t live in swing states. My vote won’t give Illinois’ electoral votes to Donald Trump. Even Sarah Silverman won’t swing California. A few votes can decide local elections, but in most states, a vote for President is simply a personal statement of values.

Clinton is experienced at deflecting scandal but I’m still surprised by how many Democrats ignore evidence of corruption surrounding the Clinton Foundation. Maybe being from a state that sent two Governors to prison makes me a little more nervous when I read about a “pay-to-play” corruption scandal.

I never cared about Hillary’s emails, but in some ways, Clinton’s actions regarding the Foundation are more inappropriate than what lead to Governor Rod Blagojevich’s conviction. The Blagojevich saga gave Illinois voters some hard lessons worth remembering as Democrats nominate a candidate with lingering corruption scandals.

For those who are unfamiliar, Blagojevich was convicted after a long investigation which included a wiretapped conversation about trading favors in exchange for filling Barack Obama’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

“I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden,” he famously said of his power to appoint. “And I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing.” The conversation prompted federal prosecutors to arrest Blago before he could follow through.

However, most of the investigation up to that point was related to soliciting campaign contributions and favors from people seeking contracts or appointments in state government.

The Clinton Foundation scandal involves similar conflict of interest issues but with much more serious consequences than who gets state vending contracts. While Hillary served as Secretary of State, the Clinton Foundation accepted donations from groups with business before the State Department. Donors include groups lobbying the State Departmentforeign interests including governments requesting approval for weapons deals, and individuals seeking federal appointments. Besides its charitable efforts, Foundation work helped the Clinton’s build political relationships prior to Hillary’s Presidential campaign.

Cynics argued that Blagojevich’s actions are how politics is played in Illinois. Others hoped his conviction signaled a new era where old forms of corruption would no longer be tolerated. It sent a message to every politician in America. But Hillary Clinton, apparently, didn’t get that message. Democrats are now in the position of excusing a corrupt conflict of interest she created and clinging to the hope that deleted emails don’t include evidence of criminal behavior.

Whether Clinton broke the law or not, it should have taken any intelligent person less than five seconds to decide that taking donations from foreign interests while serving as Secretary of State is outrageously inappropriate. 

Blagojevich’s style of politics always reminded me of Hillary Clinton. They both avoided talking about “universal health care” during the decade after her failure in ‘93. They stuck to limited, poll-tested appeals to an age demographic that votes in high numbers by focusing on prescription drugs for seniors and protecting medicare. I was struggling to pay for asthma medication at the time and wondered why my prescriptions weren’t worth fighting for.

Blagojevich famously complained about his low poll ratings after pursuing the Clinton strategy in a recorded phone conversation: “I gave your grandmother health care and free bus rides and I’m at 13 percent?!” Many Democrats joined Clinton’s strategic retreat until Howard Dean put universal health care back on the national agenda in 2004.

The signs of Blagojevich’s corruption were there when he ran for re-election. But, he used his large campaign war chest and influence as Governor to discourage any well known Democrats from running against him in the primary. 

The same tactic is the most successful part of Clinton’s campaign so far. The early drumbeat of inevitability and impressive fundraising discouraged candidates from entering the primary who most Democratic leaders would consider to be a serious challenge. Rahm Emanuel used the same strategy to chase away most of his challengers for mayor while he avoided the Laquan McDonald scandal. Clinton only had to run against an unlikely outsider with little establishment support (who still did far better than most expected).

But you can only ignore problems for so long before chickens come home to roost. The charges that led to Republican Governor George Ryan’s conviction were raised by his election opponent but largely dismissed as election year noise. Once the scandal broke, it ended a 26 year streak of Republican Governors in Illinois.

It’s easy for Democrats to ignore accusations against Clinton since Congressional Republicans are the boys who cried wolf way too many times. Blagojevich and Ryan showed that, in the long run, it’s much better for parties to primary and remove their own corrupt candidates before general election voters or federal prosecutors have to do it for them.

There’s little indication that Clinton will motivate strong Democratic turnout so she’s sure to have a Republican Congress if she’s elected. Congressional investigations into the Foundation will start before she’s inaugurated. The best we can hope for with a Clinton Presidency is four years of inaction while Congressional Republicans exploit Clinton’s bad judgement (just like the last two years of Bill’s Presidency). Maybe after becoming the first couple to be elected President, they will be the first couple to both be impeached by Congress.

President Obama managed to remain largely scandal free despite governing in a scandal-obsessed era. He understands that a president today must operate above reproach in order to be effective.

Clinton doesn’t accept that political reality. As we saw with her private email server, she seems to think the normal rules don’t apply to her. And maybe she’s right. I doubt the justice department or FBI would use a federal wiretap on a former first lady and Secretary of State like they did for Rod Blagojevich. Hillary is held to a different standard. If she were merely Governor of Illinois she may have been arrested by now.

The Foundation scandal is part of a long pattern of Hillary and Bill Clinton using their political influence to enrich themselves. Hillary’s service on the board of Walmart while her husband was Governor, the Wall Street speaking fees, and an unusual Arkansas land deal were all ways of translating political influence into personal wealth. The fact that they would continue doing so even in the post-Blagojevich era, even after the Whitewater impeachment, is hard to understand.

Many Illinois Democrats, including Obama, were embarrassed by their association with Blagojevich after the arrest. I don’t feel that way. I’m still proud of my vote for the Green Party candidate when Blago ran for re-election. 

The Greens earned major party status that year. They had a good candidate but some of the vote was a protest against Blagojevich. Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for empowering the Green Party when they pick bad nominees.

After working for years to stop war and climate change, I have no motivation to help a candidate with a record of supporting fossil fuels and aggressive use of military force. I think Clinton is still likely to win with less than a majority of the vote but the Democratic Party moved too far left during Obama’s administration to truly unite behind someone with a record like Clinton’s.

Many Democrats stubbornly refuse to learn any lessons from losses in 2000 and ‘04 so they probably won’t learn anything this year either. 

The one thing that might get through to some Democratic leaders is seeing Green Party candidate Jill Stein do much better than she did last time. It’s the only way to demonstrate how many votes Democrats sacrificed by nominating a corrupt fossil fuel war hawk instead of a progressive.

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