The Corner

White House

Is the Tide Shifting on Ignoring Politicians’ Well-Connected Idiot Sons?

Hunter Biden (left) and then–Vice President Joe Biden walk down Pennsylvania Avenue following the inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Ryan Grim at The Intercept tells the Democratic party something it doesn’t want to hear. No matter how bad Trump is, no matter how egregious the allegations against the president get, it doesn’t make the fair questions and objections about Hunter Biden and his shady business partners go away.

Indeed, Biden has been taking political hits over of the intersection of his family’s financial dealings and his own political career for some four decades. Yet he has done nothing publicly to inoculate himself from the charge that his career is corruptly enriching his family, and now that is a serious liability. By contrast, one of his opponents in the presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., went so far as to refuse to endorse his son Levi Sanders when he ran for Congress, saying that he does not believe in political dynasties. In defending the Biden’s nepotistic relationship, Democrats would be forced to argue that, to be fair, such soft corruption is common among the families of senior-level politicians. But that’s a risky general-election argument in a political moment when voters are no longer willing to accept business-as-usual. For now, Biden’s opponents in the presidential campaign appear to all hope that somebody else will make the argument, while congressional Democrats don’t want to do anything to undermine their impeachment probe. And so Biden skates.

What was going on with Hunter Biden wasn’t all that different from what happened in a lot of families of powerful politicians over the past decades. Back in 2012, the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington examined the publicly disclosed financial ties of Congress members and their family members. The group found:

‐82 members (40 Democrats and 42 Republicans) paid family members through their congressional offices, campaign committees, and political action committees;

‐44 members (20 Democrats and 24 Republicans) have family members who lobby or are employed in government affairs;

‐90 members (42 Democrats and 48 Republicans) have paid a family business, employer, or associated nonprofit;

‐20 members (13 Democrats and seven Republicans) used their campaign money to contribute to a family member’s political campaign;

‐14 members (six Democrats and eight Republicans) charged interest on personal loans they made to their own campaigns;

‐38 members (24 Democrats and 14 Republicans) earmarked to a family business, employer, or associated nonprofit.

For a long time, this was a bipartisan form of legal and socially acceptable corruption in politics, and some of us have been grumbling about this for many years. Every elected official seemed to have at least one idiot son who needed and apparently deserved a job that offered considerable compensation with minimal real responsibilities. Having a staff job, a campaign job, a lobbying gig, a campaign, or earmark-supported family business didn’t run afoul of any laws, the House and Senate ethics committees rarely ever looked that hard, and too many lawmakers had similar arrangements for their own idiot sons to get too angry about the other guy’s idiot son.

We know why politicians like having lucrative gigs for their idiot sons. But why would any of the rest of us ever lift a finger to defend it? What are we getting out of these little arrangements? Even at PACs, congressional offices, campaigns, lobbying firms, and so on, the number of well-paying gigs is finite. Every cushy slot set aside for Junior is one fewer job available for some young hungry go-getter who doesn’t come from the right bloodline.

Just because something was seen as a necessary evil or a victimless crime for a long time doesn’t mean it will always be perceived that way. As CNN’s Sarah Isgur observed, “politically astute Democrats who defended Bill Clinton 20 years ago have been smart to change their views in the #MeToo era. Are they about to do the same with Biden around the soft corruption of family ties?”

It could well be that the Democrats who are grumbling about Hunter Biden are doing so mostly out of a desire to see another candidate win the party’s nomination, and there’s no doubt that some of the people screaming loudest about Hunter Biden have never objected to, say, the Kushners attempting to cash in on their connection to the president, or a presidential son-in-law with no foreign policy experience handling sensitive negotiations with the Russians. But maybe all of this can be the start of a new era. Maybe we can stop winking and nodding at family members on the payroll, and those never-plausible claims that lobbying firms, consulting firms, and big companies at home and abroad are hiring officeholders’ children “totally based on merit,” as Burisma Holdings chairman Alan Apter said of Hunter Biden.

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