DEMOCRATIC House leader Nancy Pelosi almost has it right. This week, after Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy to commit bribery and tax evasion, she said this was "the latest example of the culture of corruption that pervades the Republican-controlled Congress."
Yes, this was the latest example of the culture of corruption in Congress, and yes, this Congress happens to be Republican controlled. But, Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats are missing a major opportunity if they intend to paint corruption as a purely Republican trait.
For starters, it just is not a credible charge and the American people know it. Polling done by Newsweek in 2003 showed that 70 percent of Americans believed the "political system is so controlled by special interests and partisanship that it cannot respond to the country's real needs." The facts back up this hunch.
While Cunningham has a few years behind bars in his future, Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of New Orleans is the target of a credible federal probe over whether he illegally made hundreds of thousands of dollars in business transactions.
GOP Rep. Bob Ney is now a target of a bribery case involving Jack Abramoff, the super-lobbyist of growing infamy for the number of corruption scandals traced to him. Yet it was also recently revealed that Byron Dorgan, a Democrat on the Senate panel investigating Abramoff, got donations from the Coushatta Indians - an Abramoff client - after helping the tribe.
If neither the facts nor the polls are on Democrats' side when they try to place all the blame on Republicans for the failure of our politics to serve the common man, then the Democrats will also fail to get the majority of people to follow their argument through to its flawed conclusion - voting against Republicans will "solve" the corruption problem.
The only argument that people will follow is that to change the culture in Washington, politicians must fundamentally change the system itself. And that's a golden opportunity for the Democrats.
Instead of casting blame, Pelosi, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and party chairman Howard Dean should acknowledge that every politician - regardless of party - has been complicit in making Washington what it is today. This self-blame may seem counterintuitive, but it will be widely accepted by voters, keeping them open-minded enough to hear what comes next.
These leaders should then say that the very first act of a Democratic-controlled Congress would be to pass real campaign-finance reform: "Clean Elections." This form of voluntary public campaign financing is the only proposal guaranteed to make special-interest money a non-factor in politics.
Here's how it works. If you want to run for office as a Clean Elections candidate, you must raise a certain number of $5 contributions from your district to show real support. The money goes to the Clean Elections fund, not to your campaign.
If you qualify, that's it, you get a check to fund your campaign but may not take any other money. Should you run against a candidate not participating in the system, the fund will match what your opponent spends - dollar for dollar to a set amount - so it's unlikely you'll be outspent.
On the state level, it is already showing dramatic results. In Arizona, the governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer and corporation commissioners were all Clean Election candidates, meaning they did not take one drop of special-interest money.
Interestingly, this proposal has passed in red states and blue states - from Maine to North Carolina and Massachusetts to Arizona. Like fraud itself, the desire to fundamentally change the system crosses party lines.
Backing Clean Elections could therefore win a good number of marginal districts for the Democrats, possibly enough to return control of Congress to them.
Let Republicans try to oppose this earthquake of an idea, and explain to people why special interest money is needed in government. It's time Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats realize that the old adage might be right: Good policy is good politics.