The laboratories of democracy are blowing up.
A rash of relatively convoluted, thoroughly unsexy political scandals involving governors is moving through the country. So many of them involve Republican presidential hopefuls that conspiracy theorists could argue they must be manufactured, or at least overhyped, by wily Democratic strategists. At least one Democratic governor has also been implicated, though.
Most of the scandals (or, to be fair, sometimes pseudo-scandals) are pretty hard to follow unless you’re paying really close attention. Which most Americans are not. So here’s an overview:
The background: A district attorney in Texas pleaded guilty to drunk driving and was jailed. She also happens to run the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which investigates ethics violations by elected officials. Perry threatened to veto funding for the unit if the district attorney didn’t resign. She refused, so Perry carried out his threat.
Pressuring a convicted lawbreaker to leave office probably sounds legitimate. Problem is, that Public Integrity Unit was investigating a cancer research institute that was one of Perry’s pet projects. (One of its former high-ranking officials now faces a felony corruption charge.) If the district attorney had stepped down before she was up for re-election, Perry would have picked her replacement, who could then presumably have quashed the investigation. Whether his actions rose to the level of criminality is a matter of debate even among his critics.
How could all of this been going on without anybody noticing?
I have one theory. Facing severe challenges to their business models, lots of mid-size newspapers have decided to go “hyperlocal,” thinning out their coverage of state-level issues and officials in the process. A recent Pew report, for example, found that the number of full-time statehouse reporters fell by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014. So perhaps governors got accustomed to the luxury of operating with little scrutiny from the Fourth Estate. Some of these imbroglios were first uncovered or pursued not by journalists, by the way, but by government investigators or an outside watchdog group.
Simultaneously, Americans are increasingly turning to comedy and entertainment sources for their news. Unfortunately, most of these newsworthy gubernatorial disgraces and boondoggles involve complex legal issues. Without lurid sexts or colorful femme fatales, they don’t especially lend themselves to late-night comedy material, or even a particularly pithy portmanteau (with the exception, of course, of Christie’s “Bridgegate”). There are a couple of stellar comedians, such as HBO’s John Oliver, who have actively tried to comedify serious but technical topics, but they are unusual.
The takeaway for politicians: If you’re going to engage in dubiously ethical endeavors, make sure they’re shrouded in complicated, confusing statutes like securities law. Good old-fashioned sex scandals may sound like more fun, but they’re intelligible enough to hold the attention of comedians, and voters, for longer than you might like.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.