Topic: Government & Politics

Of Nader and the Ethics of Terry
(8/9/2009)

Terry McAuliffe, former Clinton ally, former DNC Chair, political fundraiser extraordinaire and all-round wheeler-dealer, ran to fill the vacated Governor’s chair in Virginia. Out of the blue, Ralph Nader suddenly reappeared and revealed that McAuliffe, when he was Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2004, offered him an undisclosed amount of money to pull out of 19 battleground states in the Presidential election, so that he wouldn’t pull crucial votes from Senator John Kerry. The story actually had been told before, in a post-election book by a Nader staffer. McAuliffe’s camp’s immediate reaction was to brush aside the accusation as old news, much the way ex-slugger Mark McGwire kept telling Congress that he “didn’t want to talk about the past” when he was asked if he had used steroids. Later, a spokesman said that McAuliffe never offered Nader “any money” to “drop out of the race,” which, coming from a Clintonite, could easily mean that he did offer money to Nader’s campaign to leave the race in certain states. Since Nader, for all his faults, delusions and excesses, has never lacked for integrity, and since Nader’s description of McAuliffe as “slipperier than an eel in olive oil” would be probably be endorsed as accurate even by McAuliffe’s best friends, the Scoreboard would tend strongly to believe Nader.

Assuming that the story is true (and we will probably never know), let us do a little ethical inventory:

  • Is such an offer illegal? Almost certainly not: federal election laws permit parties almost unlimited discretion in using campaign funds. Is it unethical? Of course, just like paying your daughter’s sweetheart, whom you regard as beneath her, a large sum to move to France so she’ll marry the son of the tycoon next door is unethical. Voters have a right to have options, and the big parties shouldn’t be using their superior wealth to buy off the competition rather so they won’t have to subject themselves to democracy. If it would be all right for the Democratic Party to pay to have Ralph Nader not run, why wouldn’t it be just as legitimate for the GOP to pay Barrack Obama not to run?

  • Does this incident tell Virginians anything important about Terry McAuliffe? Sure. It tells us that he’s a committed utilitarian, who will violate basic principles of openness, process, citizenship and fairness to achieve objectives he thinks are important. The password is “ruthless.” Does it tell them anything new? No.

  • Does McAuliffe think paying a candidate not to run is a legitimate political tactic? Because he can figure out that it wouldn’t be a popular tactic, I doubt that McAuliffe would give a straight answer to that question. Someone should ask him, though.

  • Was Nader being ethical by revealing this now? Tough question. Nader felt that the Democrats did him dirt in 2004 by trying to keep him off some state ballots and clearly holds McAuliffe responsible, so his revelation carries the odor of vengeance about it. And if this bribe attempt happened, why didn’t Nader reveal it immediately?

  • Is this just politics as usual? Sadly, the answer is probably “yes”. Rod Blagojevich claimed that his attempted auctioning of the Illinois Senate seat was only unseemly because it ended up on tape, that what he did was just old-fashioned political horse-trading and that his critics were doing impressions of Claude Rains in “Casablanca” (as in, “I’m shocked! Shocked!!”) Maybe. Even probably. There are some political junkies who think voter fraud and collecting votes from the cemeteries are part of a grand old tradition too, but wrong is still wrong. When someone with a lot of money tries to use it to limit my voting options without my knowledge, that is ethically indefensible, and constitutes an attempt to apply the methods of totalitarianism to democracy.


Politicians like Terry McAuliffe---and they include the Clintons, Tom DeLay, Nancy Pelosi and many others in both political camps---really don’t think in terms of ethical or unethical. Their entire orientation is acquiring and wielding power: what works, and doesn’t send you to jail, is good. What doesn’t, or breaks the law, is bad. Whether you think such people make trustworthy public servants or not is up to you, as it is currently up to Virginians whether they want someone of this orientation as their governor.

I do not.

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Update: Despite huge advantages in funding and name recognition, McAuliffe was upset in the Democratic primary for Governor, getting only slightly more than half the votes that went to the winner, a man named Mr. Deeds, like the Frank Capra movie. Many pundits believe Nader’s account had a significant effect on the outcome.

I sure hope so.

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