For a long time, it has been more or less normal for members of Congress to employ their children in their congressional offices, campaign committees, and political action committees; have family members who lobby or are employed in government affairs; pay a family business, employer, or associated nonprofit; or uses their campaign money to contribute to a family member’s political campaign. I say “normal” as in commonplace, not normal as in “morally right or acceptable.” If you have the responsibility of allocating the taxpayer’s dollars, it is not too much to ask that your relatives and children find some other way to make a living.
Neither party is pure on issues relating to “the swamp” — cozy relationships and favor-trading deals that are often lucrative and appear to be backdoor bribery. But broadly speaking, the national media treat Republican cases as scandals that warrant criminal investigations or resignations in disgrace, and offer mild, toothless tsk-tsks to cases involving Democratic officials.
Mark Leibovich’s This Town, published in 2013, more or less epitomized the tone. Leibovich certainly didn’t support or cheer on the cozy relationships between Democratic lawmakers and administration officials, power brokers, and key members of the media. (A few Republicans appeared in his book, but it was primarily a portrait of the relationships in Washington involving the Obama administration.) But the tone was primarily, “can you believe this?” head-shaking incredulity, not simmering outrage.
For example, from 2001 to 2008, Hunter Biden worked as a partner at a lobbying firm, Oldaker, Biden & Belair. The evidence that Hunter Biden never lobbied his father is that Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, and Biden’s partners say the son never lobbied the father. This is much like the evidence that Joe Biden never discussed Burisma or any of his son’s other clients with Hunter. We’re expected to just believe that neither Biden would ever lie to us about such a thing.
Even if Hunter Biden never lobbied his father, his job was to call up lawmakers and say, “Hi, this is Hunter Biden, your colleague’s son. I’d like to talk to you about an earmark for my client.”
This was not hidden. Reporters wrote brief stories about this when Biden was selected as Obama’s running mate. In August 2013, New York Times business columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in his column, “In Washington, the line between lobbying and bribery is not clear-cut. Until 2008, R. Hunter Biden, son of then-Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., lobbied Congress regularly.”
But at no point did any of these tsk-tsking voices conclude that Hunter working as a congressional lobbyist was an inherently corrupting arrangement, and that Joe Biden’s acquiescence to the arrangement was sufficiently concerning that he should not be given additional responsibilities in government. It was just an unpleasant situation that was to be accepted and oftentimes, ignored. There was always something more important to worry about, such as doubts that Cory Gardner had actually played high-school football, or the Rubio family’s speeding tickets.
Why did Hunter Biden’s life go so awry, and why is Joe Biden now taking office with his son reportedly under FBI investigation for tax evasion, money laundering, and shady foreign business partners? In part, it’s because Hunter has been insulated from the worst consequences of his bad decisions for at least two decades now. If Time magazine had ever done a cover story on “the senator’s son who’s making a fortune lobbying his dad’s colleagues,” or 60 Minutes had done a devastating expose, the current situation might be different — very different. Barack Obama might have selected a different running mate. The Democrats might have nominated someone else, and the country might have elected someone else.