The Moral Monday movement has gained deep traction in North Carolina because it speaks to the central impulse of contemporary Democrats.
Since the 1960s, their political mission has become a moral crusade. While both parties make righteous claims about their positions on social issues, Democrats are far more likely to apply them to their economic and foreign policies.
They are happy to create jobs and keep the world safe so long as those goals align with their deeper commitment to justice.
They support raising the minimum wage, expanding the welfare state and increasing taxes on the wealthy because they believe they are the “right thing” to do.
They see themselves, above all, as champions of equal rights on the “right side of history” – and believe that big government is the best to way to level the playing field and help women, people of color, undocumented workers, gays, lesbians and others get a “fair shake” from America’s “rigged system.”
Their sharpest critique against Republicans is not grounded in policy details but morality: They cast their rivals as selfish and mean-spirited. To their mind, Republicans are not just wrong, they are bad.
Indeed, Democrats are less a party than an identity rooted in perceived virtue. They see themselves as modern day Huck Finns: moral agents in a corrupt world.
This is why campaign finance reform is one of their chief issues. They believe that their policies are factually, empirically correct and that politicians do not embrace their unassailable positions because of the corrupting influence of money. This issue looms so large that one of the first things Hillary Clinton called for after announcing her presidential campaign was a constitutional amendment to control political donations.
It’s gut-check time for Democrats. Clinton’s campaign is a challenge to their moral impulse. They may agree with her on many issues, but her behavior is demonstrably at odds with their stated values.
The liberal news site Vox.com listed 181 donors to the Clinton Foundation that lobbied the State Department while Hillary was in charge.
In a comprehensive story, the New York Times recently detailed how foreigners gave millions of dollars to the Clintons’ charitable arm while they and their Russian associates were seeking to secure uranium rights in the United States. There is no evidence that Clinton recused herself when the State Department reviewed this successful effort.
The Times reported: “A person with knowledge of the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising operation, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about it, said that for many people, the hope is that money will in fact buy influence: ‘Why do you think they are doing it — because they love them?’ ”
No quid pro quo has been established – and it may never be, in part, because Clinton says she destroyed all the emails she deemed “personal” from her time as secretary of state.
But that is beside the point. If blatant pay for play were their red line,
Democrats would support unlimited political money, trusting government to prosecute those who violate existing laws. Their position instead is that big money necessarily corrupts, often in shadowy ways – which is one reason they rail against the Koch brothers, who make no secret of their donations.
In fact, Clinton has already operated outside of the shadows. “Remember the story she told about studying The Wall Street Journal to explain her 10,000 percent profit in 1979 commodity trading?” the late, great New York Times columnist William Safire asked in 1994. “We now know that was a lie told to turn aside accusations that as the governor’s wife she profited corruptly, her account being run by a lawyer for state poultry interests through a disreputable broker. She lied for good reason: To admit otherwise would be to confess taking, and paying taxes on, what some think amounted to a $100,000 bribe.”
Given this tawdry tale – which is far more unsavory than I have space to detail here – Democrats should ask themselves whether she is the best person to be their standard bearer in 2016.
Democrats can take comfort in the fact they do not need her to win. Since 2006, most experts have concluded Democrats enjoy a significant advantage in national elections. Conventional wisdom holds that any Republican will have to thread the needle to win.
The Democratic base of urban, young, minority and female voters – as well as many affluent whites – will support whoever is the party’s nominee. The overwhelming majority could never support a Republican. And a less polarizing candidate with less baggage than Clinton might have a better chance of attracting independent voters.
A year and a half before the election, Democrats have plenty of time to find, fund and support someone else.
They ought to, for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane’s new book is titled “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.