I have a limited patience with discussions of public ethics. It would take more words than I feel like writing today to explain all the reasons why, but here’s the simple explanation: I find that too often, in the political sphere, when we speak of “ethics,” we are not talking about right and wrong; we’re merely talking about appearances.
Cindi Scoppe has always had more patience with ethics discussions than I. That’s fortunate, because her patience and diligence has made her highly knowledgeable about the ways that the topic intersects with SC public life.
But even Cindi has lost patience with the way Vincent Sheheen’s campaign is talking about ethics this week. This excerpt from her column today begins with a quote from a Sheheen release:
“Today, Nikki Haley held a press conference to talk about ethics reform in South Carolina,” a news release from his gubernatorial campaign began. “From covering up the Social Security number hacking scandal to flying with campaign staffers in a state owned plane, Nikki is the last person who should be talking about ethics reform.”
I suppose that sort of non sequitur makes some sense from a campaign perspective, as it reminds people of our governor’s ethical imperfections. But from a governing perspective — and one of the things that I’ve always admired about Vincent Sheheen is that he cares about governing, much more than the governor has tended to — it is completely wrong.
It suggests that reform should be pursued only by the pure of heart. In fact, our government, as a creation of human beings, must rely on imperfect vessels….
Cindi’s completely right. And she’s right that, while the ethics bill the governor is pushing has serious flaws, it’s better than no bill at all.
All week, the Sheheen campaign and state Democratic Party (mostly the party, now that I go back and look) have been bombarding my inbox with attacks on Nikki Haley’s suitability as an advocate for ethics reform.
Yep, it’s ironic that she wants to prevent abuses she has committed herself, but hey — at least she knows what she’s talking about.
And yes, the attacks on Sheheen for being a small-town lawyer representing clients before magistrates whom he had recommended for appointment are rather absurd and over-the-top. As the Sheheen campaign notes, he is the sponsor of a bill to place the power for appointing magistrates in the hands of the Supreme Court. There is nothing “scandalous,” to cite one word used by the governor’s staff, about him representing clients openly in magistrate’s court, under the laws currently in place.
I am more disturbed that so much rhetoric out of the Sheheen campaign and its allies is about tearing down the governor.
In other words, Doug, I’m moving to your way of thinking. I have defended Sheheen to Doug, saying that when you’re running against an incumbent, you have an obligation to explain to voters why the incumbent should no longer hold the office. This necessity is less obvious to Doug because his more or less default position is to be anti-incumbent, while I expect a challenger to justify the challenge.
One justifies a challenge in two ways: By explaining what’s wrong with the incumbent, and by telling voters why you, the challenger, would do a better job.
Lately, though, it seems the Sheheen campaign is all about the former, and very light on the latter.
To get back to Cindi’s column:
The email went on: “Our state deserves real ethics reform. And we deserve a governor who doesn’t constantly blur the lines to serve political agendas.”
Those are both very good points. But they address two completely different issues.
The first is about what sort of law the Legislature passes — or doesn’t pass — in the coming session. The second is about whom we elect as governor a year from now.
Personally, I’d like to have both. At this point, I think Mr. Sheheen would make a better choice on the “governor who doesn’t constantly blur the lines” thing. And the ethics plan that Ms. Haley is pushing might be our best shot at real ethics reform. In fact, while Mr. Sheheen wants to focus more on correcting other shortcomings in our ethics law, the main provisions that Ms. Haley is pushing are changes he supports.
One of the things I detest about our two dominant political parties is the way they encourage people to attack good ideas just because they come from the other side. The Sheheen campaign seems to be falling into that habit, and should heed what Cindi said at the end:
Yes, we deserve a lot better than the Senate Judiciary Committee’s reform package. But the way to get better is to join with other reformers to strengthen the bill — not to attack the efforts of the person who’s best able to focus public attention on the need for reform.
Don’t make perfection the enemy of the good (this is cracking Cindi up, because she had to say that so often to me, as I was seldom satisfied with half a loaf). Take a mediocre bill, and work to make it better.
And cut it out with the drip, drip, drip of negativity.