Why Republicans Decline to Attack Democrats on “Culture of Corruption”

Nathan L. Gonzales July 13, 2016 · 11:34 AM EDT

Republicans are obsessed with one high-profile Democrat who isn’t going to be indicted — while giving a collective shrug after two Democratic House members have been indicted within the past 12 months.  

On Friday, Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida was indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges related to an unregistered charity. She announced she is temporarily stepping down as the ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. 

Less than a year ago, Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania faced a 29-count indictment on charges of bribery, wire fraud, and racketeering conspiracy. Fattah subsequently lost his primary, was convicted and resigned his seat on June 23.  

It might look like a trend and an opportunity for the GOP to replicate the Democrats’ “Culture of Corruption” message from 2006, but there are still enough differences in the situations to give Republicans pause.  

Brown and Fattah represent heavily Democratic districts, so their seats aren’t at risk of a Republican takeover. But the nearly universal silence on the Republican side is surprising. (Fattah and Brown are also the fourth and fifth African-American Democratic members to be indicted in a little more than a decade.)  

If two Republican members had been indicted, Democrats might well be dusting off their “Culture of Corruption” press release template.  

A decade ago, the Rahm Emanuel-led Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee built a media narrative around the so-called “Culture of Corruption” of the Republican-led Congress. It encapsulated any alleged impropriety by a GOP elected official under a single umbrella, even if the scandals were unrelated, and helped Democrats win back the House majority.  

For now, Republicans plan to make Democratic candidates “own” Hillary Clinton’s legal issues.  

Or, they're making ethical arguments against specific Democratic candidates.

Those include California Rep. Ami Bera, whose father recently pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations. Also, former Rep. Joe Garcia, who's attempting a comeback in Florida's 26th District — he had two aides resign during a fraud investigation in 2013.  

But a broader centralized message isn’t on the horizon.

"'Culture of Corruption' was a waste of time for the Democrats," GOP media consultant Brad Todd said. "These things either seep into the groundwater or they don’t. I’m not sure you can manufacture outrage in a 24/7 media culture. You have to tap into organic outrage."  

It’s unclear whether journalists would cover the hypothetical GOP messaging in the same way that they did a dozen years ago, particularly with Donald Trump hanging around. Nearly a day after the news of Brown’s looming charges broke, I couldn’t find a story about it in The New York Times or The Washington Post (which publishes approximately 500 items per day ). I’m going to guess there would be more coverage if multiple Republican members were indicted.  

But there is some disagreement on the Republican side about the effectiveness of the Democrats’ past effort and the usefulness of a future message.  

“In 2006, the overriding theme was war in the Middle East,” recalled GOP media consultant Mike McElwain, who was political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee that election season. “But the biggest impact that the 'Culture of Corruption' had was that it ended any chance of getting a message out.”  

According to McElwain, the party was having some success motivating depressed Republicans by focusing on taxes and immigration, before the Mark Foley scandal broke in late September.  

“After that, the national story was corruption, and Republicans were unable to get any traction with a message,” McElwain said. “Foley was the final straw that tied everything together — Abramoff and then it was DeLay, Ney, Renzi, Doolittle, Weldon, Sherwood and then Foley — it was a long string of mostly unrelated acts.”  

In 2005, Tom DeLay was indicted on criminal charges of conspiracy stemming from campaign finance violations in state races in Texas in 2002 and was forced to resign as majority leader. (His 2010 conviction was overturned about three years later.)  

Separately, DeLay, California Rep. John Doolittle and Ohio Rep. Bob Ney were connected to infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who served nearly four years in prison for conspiracy to bribe public officials and other charges. (Ney served nearly a year and a half in prison.)  

California Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting over $2 million in bribes unrelated to Abramoff. Pennsylvania Rep. Don Sherwood admitted to an extramarital affair  and his mistress accused him of abuse. FBI agents raided fellow Pennsylvania Republican Curt Weldon ’s daughter’s home and other locations to determine whether the congressman improperly used his position. Federal authorities opened an investigation into Arizona Republican Rick Renzi’s finances just weeks before Election Day.  

And finally, in late September, Foley resigned his Florida seat after news reports disclosed sexually explicit messages he sent to teenage boys who had served as House pages and the story enveloped the House GOP leadership. (Foley was never charged with a crime.)

Are Brown and Fattah’s troubles enough for Republicans to start building a narrative?  

“These guys are not Tom DeLay. They are two-bit players on their way out,” remarked one Democratic strategist who rode the wave of the 2006 cycle in which Democrats gained 31 seats and made Nancy Pelosi the first woman speaker of the House.  

“If it was a bigger narrative that ensnared more members, it would be a bigger story,” explained the source, who pointed out that the “Culture of Corruption” narrative was particularly effective in 2006 because it involved members of the GOP leadership.  

But the entirety of the Democratic message was greater than the sum of its parts (Cunningham, Sherwood, Weldon, Ney and Renzi were not household names) and the Foley scandal was magnified by the months of work Democrats had invested in their messaging.  

Looking ahead, it remains to be seen whether Republicans will expand their message beyond Clinton’s private email server. “It’s a good narrative,” McElwain added, “Hillary Clinton and the House Democrats don’t think the rules apply to them.”  

Democrats can’t be comfortable with the indictments, but Republicans don’t have much time (Democrats started their messaging effort nearly a year before the 2006 elections) and they’ll need at least a few more isolated incidents (or more) to fuel the narrative.