The investigation into Rep. Charlie Rangel's alleged financial shenanigans is probably the most touchy question to pose to senior House Democrats and their aides these days. As the New York Times's Carl Hulse implied over the weekend, if Rangel were not the chairman of the Ways of Means Committee, if he were not a beloved figure among his colleagues, if fears of internal racial politics weren't in the mix, Rangel would be as good as stripped from his position. (Rangel says he's innocent and chides journalists who ask him about the investigation.) Rangel is one of several congressional Democrats who could plausibly become significant albatrosses around the neck of House incumbents next year, not the least of which because of his high-status position as the nation's chief tax writer. Events are conspiring with House Democrats to give Republicans a pretty solid anti-corruption narrative to run on. Of the 15 members of Congress who are under some sort of investigation, according to CREW, 11 are Democrats.
Last week, for example, it was revealed that the Obama administration's corporate compensation overseer, Ken Feinberg, had given his "blessing" to a $10.5 million bonus for the AIG CEO. Republicans already plan to run on the charge that health care reform will result in millions of middle class taxpayers paying more for health care. Even though Feinberg's decision was within social and political norms, it's the type of thing that the party in power gets blamed for, and will therefore make for a great Republican TV ad in the Midwest, in the Rocky Mountains and in the South. Add to this combustible mix a broad anti-government sentiment a frustration with Democratic insularity, solid GOP recruitment and relative fundraising parity.
And who, again, will be overseeing a broader tax reform effort next year? Whose committee will oversee the tax changes resulting from health care? Rangel, who is being investigated for failing to pay taxes on income and property he did not disclose, among other things.
Many Democratic consultants think that, at some point, if the drip-drip about Rangel continues, the pressure to oust him as chairman will precipitate the sort of late-September pre-midterm panic that has the potential to cascade into a bigger problem for Democrats. At this point, Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have to choose whether loyalty (to her friend Jack Murtha, for example) is too important a value to sacrifice.
Believe it or not, some very senior Democrats refuse to accept that their party might have a corruption problem, or that, at the very least, the public may not believe that Democrats are inherently honorable and Republicans are essentially corrupt. Republicans hope that the 2006 and 2008 elections removed the low-hanging corruptibles from their conference in the House -- although they have a significant problem in the Senate, where one senator, John Ensign, is facing an ethics investigation and is almost certain to face other legal challenges as the year goes on.
Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.