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Democrats Can Do Better Than This

If Republicans want to weaponize every appearance of corruption, there's a simple way to disarm them.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rich people are just like us, in that they enjoy simple pleasures: Good food, vacations, and joining corporate boards. They simply can’t get enough of being on corporate boards—or sometimes charity boards, or museum boards. If you are truly an elite, you simply must be on a board or two, to demonstrate how sought-after your expertise is. Ex-politicians, in particular, love joining corporate boards, which happen to often come with a nice paycheck. In 2013, the average paycheck for directors at S&P 500 companies was $251,000; a 2016 Bloomberg report on ex-lawmakers joining corporate boards found they earned an even juicier $357,182.

But what do these people actually do? What expertise or skill that they use in these part-time roles is so valuable? This question has become newly relevant since the story of how Hunter Biden came to have a seat on a Ukrainian gas company board has returned to the news, after it was reported that President Trump called the Ukrainian president and asked him to investigate Joe Biden over his son’s ‘business activities.’ What, pray tell, was Hunter doing on the board of a Ukrainian gas company in the first place, to the tune of $50,000 a month?

The answer to this doesn’t necessarily implicate Joe Biden in wrongdoing; most media outlets acknowledge that there is “no evidence” that Joe sought to help his son’s paymasters. It’s possible that a Ukrainian oligarch thought they had identified a good way to influence the American administration. It also seems very likely that they simply miscalculated, given what we know about Hunter Biden—who is something of a screw-up, with serious drug and alcohol problems, according to a New Yorker profile from earlier this year. If anything, it seems more like Hunter’s hustle was trading on the Biden surname. He is the kind of man who, according to the magazine, would end up in possession of a “large diamond” from “the Chinese energy tycoon Ye Jianming, who was trying to make connections in Washington among prominent Democrats and Republicans.” (He later gave the 2.8 carat diamond to his associates, saying he “just felt like it was weird.”) He has big G.O.B. Bluth energy.

But accepting that Joe Biden was not influenced by his son’s big payout from Ukraine does not necessarily mean that “Biden Son Big Ukrainian Payout” is not going to be a sticking point if the Democrats nominate him. It looks fishy, and voters already have little trust in governing elites, believing them to be corrupt and out-of-touch. Frankly, voters don’t have much good reason to have faith that their elected leaders are on the up-and-up. “There’s no direct evidence of a quid pro quo!” doesn’t do much to reassure voters that the appearance of corruption—an appearance Biden’s allies acknowledged, according to the New Yorker—is just an appearance.

Comparisons have immediately been drawn with the Clinton email scandal, which liberals have never forgiven The New York Times for writing about so much, but it also calls to mind another Clinton scandal from 2016: Her highly paid speeches to Wall Street. In both cases, the defense has been some version of “there’s no evidence of corruption,” which doesn’t do a lot to dispel the outsider’s view that it really looks a lot like corruption. A post at Media Matters, the progressive advocacy group that frequently acted as a Clinton campaign arm, argued in 2016 that the “whole idea that paid corporate speeches are built around the expectation of favors returned doesn’t make much sense.” This is why the appearance of corruption is so damaging: Arguing that there is merely no (public) evidence of corruption doesn’t help you convince voters who are already primed to see politicians as venal scumbags. Why should voters trust any of the fat cats in Washington telling voters that their hearts are pure, that they didn’t promise the big banks anything in those $200,000 speeches? Who could look at that and think “this is probably fine?”

So what are Democrats to do? Liberals have fixated on the media’s role, particularly The New York Times, in hyping up Trump’s accusations against Biden, in the same way that the Times covered Clinton’s scandals more than Trump’s. This is not something to be taken lightly; the New Yorker profile of Hunter Biden details how conservative author Peter Schweizer and Steve Bannon worked together on Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash, which surfaced allegations of corruption involving the Clinton Foundation and the sale of uranium that proved to have no direct evidence behind them only after the rest of the mainstream media had made a baleful of hay out of the allegations. (This is another advantage for Republicans, who have correctly surmised that the explanations of why activities aren’t corrupt are usually very complicated, much more so than simply screaming “LOCK HER UP!”) These conservative masterminds—some guy who wrote a bad book and a guy who banished himself to an Italian monastery he then got kicked out of—seem to have happened upon an unstoppable playbook for derailing Democrats and winning elections: Highlight any allegations of elite-style corruption that the regular folk hate, and also do lots of racism.

The media is certainly a better tactical target for liberal outrage about the Hunter Biden issue than Republicans, who cannot be shamed. But there’s an extent to which demanding that the media “cover Trump’s scandals more” won’t cut it either. The media does cover Trump’s scandals pretty thoroughly; media coverage is how we know about those scandals in the first place. The problem has always been that despite Trump and his cronies repeatedly and flagrantly committing all sorts of crimes and violations, he easily wriggles his way out of trouble each time. It’s no wonder that liberals resort to screaming at the media, since the Democratic Party has been so reluctant to conduct real oversight.

What is the answer, then, to this pattern of Republicans and the media highlighting the unseemly dealings of Democrats and their family members, even when those dealings are actually not corrupt? You can say this is evidence of our post-truth society, where the president can say anything and make us all talk about it whether it’s true or not; you can blame the media for playing into that; you can give up, stop paying attention to the news, and throw your phone in the ocean. But in this case, the answer is clear: The Democratic Party should just not nominate Joe Biden. It turns out that you’re allowed to not nominate people with histories of giving paid speeches to Wall Street, or whose children took big payouts from oligarchs, or anyone who is mired in the world of elite favor-trading. These are bad candidates, and worse elected officials. The Republic will survive without their civic contributions, and they’ll always be able to find work on a corporate board somewhere.