Does no one else find the very fact of John Edwards being on trial curious? Does no one else wonder about the criminal basis for the prosecution? About who in politics does and does not end up being destroyed by matters related to sexual behavior?
Let me preface my take on the Edwards trial with one general observation: Not all politicians are created equal. And not all are treated equally. Therein lies an issue deserving a much, much closer look: whether vulnerable Democrats, chiefly of the liberal persuasion, are targeted for destruction. Or at least helped along to their doom by a double standard.
But first, the specifics of the Edwards case. He faces a potential $1.5 million fine, but, far more seriously, up to 30 years imprisonment. Thirty years. His crime? Not murder, not torture, not armed robbery, not stealing money from clients. No, his crime was his failure to report campaign contributions. While preparing for his second presidential bid, in 2006, he got caught up in an extramarital affair that produced a child. And, not exactly able to announce that fact or ask his sick wife to sign off, the wealthy Edwards turned to some wealthy backers to take care of the woman and the baby and hide the whole thing from Elizabeth Edwards and presumably everyone else. Two people gave him a total of $900,000.
When someone running for office receives money, or the benefit of money or services, that's a contribution, and it must both be reported and be subject to restrictions on amount. Unless of course it has nothing to do with the campaign itself. Certainly, candidates receive ordinary income (such as fees for lawyering) that is not subject to those limits. And if someone gives a candidate a gift that is not used for the campaign, it is similarly not subject to campaign finance laws.
So, what's the ill intent here -- and the consequence for the public interest? If this were a bribe by someone seeking to influence Edwards as an office-holder, that would be one thing. If the money were intended to help sway voters to support Edwards, that might be valid cause for pursuing the case aggressively. But nothing about the two donors, both elderly (one has since died), suggests an attempt to gain illegal influence. In reality, both donors -- the billionaires Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Fred Baron -- apparently liked and believed in Edwards and, when asked, were quick to aid him in a tough spot.
If it sounds like Edwards still needed to apply FEC rules and limits, consider this: Scott Thomas, a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission testified that he did not consider that the payments would have come under his agency's auspices -- in part because they were not used directly for the campaign and did not free up any of Edwards' own money to be spent on the campaign. And Thomas noted that the gifts from one of the donors continued after Edwards dropped out of the race, indicating they were not for campaign purposes. Unfortunately for Edwards, the ex-commissioner, a 37-year FEC veteran with great credibility on these matters, was only permitted to testify without the jury present -- and the jury may never get to hear from him.
In any case, one doesn't need to in any way defend Edwards' conduct to see that the matter is a bit complex, and the prosecution for a federal crime, and the prospective punishment, extraordinarily harsh.
The "Liberal" Media Loves to Sink Liberals
What's this really about? The equal application of election law? Equal pursuit of actual corruption? An equal standard of sexual misbehavior and how it should be handled? It's hard to see any of these legitimate concerns front and center here.
What did strike me about this matter is that it seems to confirm a feeling that I have long had: Progressive Democrats who get caught with their pants down appear to pay a steeper price in terms of impact on their career prospects -- if not criminal prosecution -- when compared to similarly compromised corporate-friendly Republicans.
Let's consider the long list of Democrats before John Edwards who were wounded by accusations of sexual misbehavior: Gary Hart. Gary Condit (who was tied to the disappearance and murder of a young woman; although in the end it turned out he had nothing to do with it, he was ruined anyway because of an alleged dalliance with the young woman). Bill Clinton. Eliot Spitzer. Anthony Weiner. (I'm sure I am forgetting some.)
Republican politicians seem no less prone than Democrats to adultery and other common, if frowned-upon, behavior. But compared to the infamy visited upon those named above, how many of us recall all the GOP/Conservative Scandals? How often were these the topic of constant chatter on the major talk radio programs? Try David Vitter, Newt Gingrich, Jon Ensign, Dan Burton, Helen Chenoweth, Henry Hyde, Robert Livingston, Mark Foley, to name but a few. Several quickly resigned but the only one who, pardon the expression, went down after extensive coverage (and his own resistance) that I can recall was Larry Craig -- whose public washroom behavior (and tone-deaf defense thereof) was pretty hard to ignore.
In fact, given the standard GOP claim to represent "family values" and morality in general, it would seem that shenanigans from that side of the aisle would warrant more attention -- and graver consequences -- if for nothing more than the inherent hypocrisy and cynicism.
We cannot ignore the decision-makers who decide whom to prosecute, partially in response to unstated political and other pressures. Nor should we ignore the role of the media (and supposed friends of the Democrats) in sealing their doom.
The New York Times, purported linchpin of the liberal media, hammered Bill Clinton and broke the Eliot Spitzer call-girl story. Gary Hart was investigated by the purportedly moderate-liberal Miami Herald and Washington Post. Clinton was taken to the woodshed by Joe Lieberman and some feminists. Spitzer was quietly mugged, off-record, by his Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who was only too glad to capture the governorship himself two years later. In the case of Rep. Weiner, the saturation coverage made it difficult to recall that he had not actually had sexual contact with the women he was sending messages to. Nevertheless, he was assailed by prominent liberal blogs and cut off by Nancy Pelosi; his seat, a sure Democratic bet, went GOP in a special election.