Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Obama and Rezko and money and politics

Okay let's talk about that Sun-Times two-parter (read it here and here). The story is about how Tony Rezko, a top Illinois political fundraiser, obtained a bunch of government grants for low-income housing for his company, Rezmar. According to the story, Rezko then acted like a slumlord, allowing the buildings to fall into disrepair even as he continued cashing government checks for them.

Tim Novak's story is pretty interesting for its many details about Rezko's dealings, the front companies he set up, funds he siphoned and his apparently correct assumption that as long as he kept the political money flowing, his grants would not stop. From the story's part two:
Rezko was the schmoozer. He showered politicians with money for their campaign funds and got others to do the same. He gave to Democrats -- foremost among them former Cook County Board President John Stroger, Gov. Blagojevich, Daley and Sen. Barack Obama. Rezko gave to Republicans, too -- among them former Gov. Jim Edgar, the late Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens and President George W. Bush.

He also gave to others who held sway over Rezmar's housing deals -- like Chicago aldermen.

Meanwhile, Rezmar's low-income apartments were deteriorating, and it stopped repaying some loans.
The story raises the question of whether Obama should have known about the falling-apart Rezko buildings that were in Obama's district. (Obama says their condition was "wasn't brought to [his] attention.") It's a fair question, though reasonable people can probably disagree about exactly how much building inspection we require of our state senators. But the story also tries to make an extremely iffy link between Rezko's company and a Chicago law firm where Obama worked fresh out of law school. Obama apparently did a few hours' worth of low-level work on some of Rezko's paperwork. Big deal.

For cynics like Steve Rhodes, though, it is just obvious that Obama always knew Rezko was a swindler and a cheat. In fact, Rhodes seems to argue that Obama definitely knew and intentionally ignored the conditions of Rezko's properties. Rhodes writes:
[Obama's account] strains credulity, though it fits the pattern of Obama as an innocent who's always the last to know about the evil that lurks around him. Such a smart guy, too.
Well, maybe. But isn't the Tony Rezko story really about money and politics more broadly? Rezko was able to thrive for as long as he did because he understood how to take advantage of the system -- you schmooze, you write checks, you pretend to care about the right issues, and who has the time or the inclination to check on what you're really up to? That's an indictment of the system, yes, but it is something more prosaic than a conspiracy: It's just a guy who knows how to cheat.

Look, Rhodes is right that our political machinery, for which money is oxygen, invites abuses by Rezkos and encourages politicians to look the other way. Still, my sense is that it's infinitely easier to be someone like Rhodes, placing himself completely outside the political process and declaring all actors equally bankrupt, than it is to try to work from within a lousy system to get good policies enacted.

Writing about a recent column by Maureen Dowd going after John Edwards for getting an expensive haircut, Matthew Yglesias wrote:
[It's] impossible, in practice, for anyone to advocate effectively on behalf of working class Americans. It's simply not possible, given the way the American political system works, for a person to be in a position to run for president without having achieved high socioeconomic status. A person will, in that position, be condemned by the press as a hypocrite if he acts like someone with money, and condemned by the press as a phony if he acts like someone without money. ... No real person can uniformly avoid these "errors" -- it's the media dynamic that needs to change.
Barack Obama suffers from some of the same dynamic, because at the same time that he is calling for a "new kind of politics," his candidacy has to have enough realpolitik to, you know, actually win an election. This means lots and lots of money, it means having a media strategy and operation, and inevitably at some points it will mean attack politics.

One way to respond to this would be to deride all the realpolitik stuff as automatically hypocritical, dishonest, etc. But that's hiding your head in the sand. The real problem is structural, and in the end the "hypocrite" charge is just another way of arguing that politics shouldn't change.

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