Over the years, readers in the comments section of Attytood have voiced incredulity that I'm not a registered Democrat. Fair enough -- I openly admit that I've never voted for a Republican for president (though two independents) yet it's also true that for most of my adult life I've been a registered independent. But the reasons for that have changed over time -- changed significantly, in fact.
In the late 1980s, I worked on Long Island and covered a township run by Nixonian Republicans, and I didn't want them looking up my party affiliation. Besides, a) I bought into a lot of the late 20th Century BS about "the balanced, blank-slate journalist" (which would also require a lobotomy, but I digress...b) I was more of a centrist then than I am today, so much so that I might have voted for (the then more liberal) John McCain than (then more conservative) Al Gore had that been the choice in November 2000.
Today, it's different. There's a lot of reasons I'm not a registered Democrat (even though that means I'm disenfranchised on Pennsylvania Primary Day) but the main one is that the party is a constant embarrassment. Its elected officials spend most of their time running away from any progressive principles buried in the party platform. And a party with no principles -- other than the outsized egos of its anointed leaders -- becomes a breeding ground for corruption. Nowhere is that more true than here in Pennsylvania.
These should be heady days for the Democrats here in the Keystone State -- Gov. Tom Wolf became the first candidate to beat an incumbent governor since the state allowed them to run for re-election in the 1960s. And he did so with a fairlly liberal platform, including a plan to tax fracking (something that happens in every other energy producing state, even blood-red Texas) to pay for our underfunded schools.
But the bigger picture looks awful. Wolf, despite winning in a landslide, had reverse coattails; the new legislature may be the most conservative in state history, which casts serious doubt on whether he'll fulfill any of his campaign promises. But it gets worse. The first Democrat ever elected attorney general in Pennsylvania history, Kathleen Kane, is devoting much of her time not to fighting polluters and assorted white-collar crooks but to prevent her own indictment on perjury charges. And now we learn that state treasurer Rob McCord is quitting and pleading guilty to federal extortion charges, after pressuring state contractors to give money to his own failed bid for the governor's mansion. Even here in Philadelphia, the somewhat hopeful entry of (loose cannon) Councilman Jim Kenney into the mayor's race doesn't change the fact that the current front-runners support illiberal ideas like unfettered charter schools or wholesale pot arrests.
What a mess. But why?
In recent times, most notably the reign of former Gov. Ed Rendell in the 2000s, Democrats have been more a cult of personality than a party of ideas. The Rendell era was marked by a few good policies (renewable energy) subsumed by its anything-goes-ethically mentality. Today, Rendell makes phone calls for fracking companies, lobbies for European-style austerity and gives paid speeches to groups that on the State Department's terrorism list. Some liberal.
But his approach taught his successors what really mattered in Pa. politics was raising a lot of money and keep it vague. Other Northeastern states elected progressive attorneys general who took on polluters or Wall Street or stressed consumer protection; the resume-deprived Kane won the AG slot in 2012 (on the ticket with Obama) by running as a Republican-lite "prosecutor-not-a-politician" who was endorsed by the Clintons (pure payback; her foe, the liberal Iraq vet Patrick Murphy, had backed Obama over Hillary in '08), and had a trailer full of cash thanks to her husband's family trucking business. Her difficulties in doing the actual job -- and turning to insider Dick Sprague when she got in a jam -- probably shouldn't come as a shock.
In 2014, the Dems could have recaptured the governor's mansion purely through ideology -- compared to the utter poverty of Tom Corbett's empty-headed kissing up to the Tea Party -- but it was easier to coast on Wolf's $10 million stake. That level of spending apparently drove treasurer McCord out of his mind; by his own admission, he then threatened would-be donors so he could raise money to compete with Wolf -- thus further tarnishing the Democratic brand just as Wolf was starting out.
But this is about more than money. Consider Sen. Bob Casey, arguably the party's senior leader, who surely isn't corrupt. He's just a soulless political cipher, which is -- arguably -- worse. Many left-leaning Pennsylvanians held their nose and elected the mostly pro-gun and anti-reproductive-rights Casey when the alternative was Rick Santorum, but Casey has managed to disappoint in ways that could not have been predicted. Last year, he kowtowed to the local FOP to block a decent man from becoming the government's top civil rights lawyer, and this year he joined with most Republicans to try to foist that Keystone XL pipeline -- a "job creation" bill that creates 50 permanent jobs, to ship the dirtiest fuel known to mankind across the American Heartland -- on the public. He was joined in that by Philadelphia's Democratic boss. Rep. Bob Brady. Who are these people working for in this? Not Pennsylvanians.
Pennsylvania's problems aren't in need of a rocket scientist. The middle class in this state is hurting. Income inequality here is among the worst in the nation, and that's partly the result of a regressive tax structure, including a flat-rate income tax. Public college tuition is higher than just about anywhere in the U.S., while public schools are funded both poorly and unfairly. Part of the problem is a sweetheart arrangement with the oil and gas companies who are under-regulated and undertaxed.
Now new Democratic governor Wolf sets out to attack these problems as an Army of One. The rest of his would-be troops have been otherwise occupied -- raising cash, talking like Republicans, and hoping that the public and the prosecutors aren't paying close attention. But a party that was only good at raising money proved to be morally bankrupt.