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Thursday, November 05, 2009

More About Lesson Two

I really should have elaborated. Corruption is a winning issue when voters perceive they are paying for it. Use of taxpayer funds for private purposes is a classic example. Embezzling taxpayer funds (as in the case of the Post Office scandal of the 1990s) is another.

Costs imposed by scandals to voters can come in some form other than financial. I'm at a loss for a real-life example at the moment, so I'll come up with a hypothetical local-setting example, with financial and then-some costs: politician takes bribes to look the other way while a construction firm builds its latest project under code, the building later collapses, killing a dozen or so.

People will react to scandals that hurt people other than themselves, but not as readily as the stuff that flies in their own faces.

The 1992 House Banking Scandal fits in a different category: an outrageous privilege that normal citizens and not even non-politician millionaires would be able to get away with. Let's call it the "it's good to be king" classification of scandals.

Check kiting without penalty is essentially an interest-free loan. It bore no costs to the taxpayer (not directly, anyway - ask someone who knows banking better than me if there are any indirect costs), but voters don't trust someone that careless with their own checkbooks with drafting trillion-dollar budgets.

Bribery is another prime example. Rod Blagojevich is Exhibit A.

So why didn't the Chinese campaign finance scandal have any legs? Isn't campaign money from a foreign government essentially bribery? There are two reasons for this. First, lots of people have a difficult time believing that this sort of thing could actually happen outside of Joe McCarthy's hallucinations or a Tom Clancy novel. More importantly - bake this into your brains, folks - people cannot be adversely affected by adversely react to events they cannot grasp.

The scandal had too many moving parts for average folks to keep track of - and only parts of the scandal involved the Chinese government. The PRC is totally absent from the post memorable vignette: the 1996 Hsi Lai Temple political fundraiser. John Huang, Charlie Trie, and Johnny Chung do? Some may recall Hsia (pronounced "shya") was associated with the Buddhist temple fundraiser. (Did the ACLU ever weigh in on that? I don't recall ever hearing a peep from them.)

This also explains the limited effect of Whitewater. The general public has only a vague notion that some kind of real estate scam took place. Most Americans can't even name the real estate development - Castle Grande - that is central to the scandal. In short, it was a shady real estate development that illegally acquired funding from the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan; when it tanked the S&L collapsed - a Bernie Madoff shell game on a relatively small scale.

The Clintons were either innocent victims (they were Whitewater Development Company investors), or they were involved in at least some the illegal doings. This leads to another principle to Lesson 2: there's gotta be a smoking gun that the general public can easily spot. If there are such smoking guns regarding Whitewater and Madison Guaranty, they're not well known. Putting them in the pages of an Ann Coulter book is not going to reach the unconverted. (Believe it or not, I don't own any of her books.)

One more principle: the target audience must perceive the scandal as something bad. No-brainer, huh? Think again. The people who get huffy over Iran-Contra can't gain any converts because their opponents believe a) that Ollie North's activities helped to rescue Nicaragua from Communism, and b) Ollie found a legit loophole in the Boland Amendments - the US government couldn't give aid directly to the Contras, but it could deal with a foreigner (Manucher Ghorbanifar) who promises to fund the Contras. A lot of people don't see any problem with North Korea acquiring those two light-water nuclear reactors because, as MSNBC reports, they represent "a type of nuclear reactor that cannot be easily used to make bombs." (It's a mystery what North Korea is doing with any of its power generation.)

There is an exception to this rule, which I will cite in my summary of these musings:

  • Corruption as a political issue works best when the harm the corruption inflicts on the voter can be illustrated.
  • The evidence of corruption must be made clear to the general public.
  • The average voter does not devote hours to research a single news story. Complex corruption scandals must be broken down into a brief summary that stresses the most critical wrongdoings and evidences thereof.
  • Know your audience. The purpose of campaigning is to reach the unconverted. Do not harp on a scandal that the unconverted do not find scandalous. One exception: if you can point out a consequence of the scandal that the audience has not foreseen, and that the audience does indeed oppose.

Update: Boldface statement is reworded for clarification.

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