There’s an old myth that the bar to elective office is so high that no one truly worthy would ever run.
The idea is that the financial and tax disclosures, rigors of raising money, potential embarrassment and limited rewards of the job are so daunting that a successful person would have to be crazy to trade their privacy and sense of decency for it.
But, if anything, this election has shown us that the cost of a spot in a presidential election may be too low.
After all, the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has nothing in his background that suggests he would be suited for the presidency, and he’s demonstrated time and again on the campaign trail that he has the temperament of a particularly bigoted and egomaniacal kindergartener. Trump’s hidden his tax records, lied about his charitable giving — which begins and mostly ends at home — and has spent little time explaining why he associated with people tied to organized crime.
The Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has been so enmeshed in a thicket of coincidental and conflicting interests — the Clinton Foundation, the State Department, corporate donors to her various entities, individual and organizational contributors to her campaigns, and private companies and associations that lined her treasury in exchange for speeches — that it’s impossible to see where one interest ends and the other begins.
Banana republics are looking down on us right now.
In the future, we should get more information about candidates before they become major-party nominees. I’d like to see someone in Congress propose, and pursue, legislation requiring candidates, upon filing for the presidency, to allow the IRS and FBI to disclose their records to the public. Of course, information related to pending investigations or other people could be redacted. But the public should have access to this very basic information before handing the country over. There should also be periodic updates from the agencies, none of which would come after, say, Labor Day of the election year.
Thank Clinton for that addendum. She’s the first nominee in memory to be under FBI investigation in the middle of the campaign, and there are now multiple probes involving Clintonworld. That’s the real genesis of her problem, even if she’s been unfairly treated in that FBI Director Jim Comey revealed information about her pending case when he chastised her publicly, testified about it in front of Congress and released the bureau’s notes on it all under the poor assumption that new evidence would never come to light.
Vote for Clinton, maybe, but don’t feel sorry for her. She entrusted her fate to the gray areas of the law. “They didn’t have enough to prosecute” isn’t much of a campaign slogan, and it shouldn’t be the standard we set for presidential candidates.
These candidates’ flaws may not be equivalent, but each political side sees the other team’s candidate as the worse sinner and the less fit to lead the country. For what it’s worth, I think a vote for just about anyone — up to and including your favorite cartoon character — is immeasurably better than a vote for Trump.
I also think that it’s far too easy to game our system of disclosure, whether it’s the traditional release of tax information or the more unusual question of a candidate’s FBI file. And, frankly, I’d like to know what the bureau has on Trump.
Our presidential elections can be affected by so many unusual and unexpected forces — from Russian hackers to former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s electronic devices — that it makes sense that Americans should at least have a feel for what the federal government knows about White House hopefuls.
Surely, Congress will be reluctant to pass a new law that could later be extended to House and Senate candidates, and libertarians and privacy advocates will blanch at the suggestion that candidates would have to sacrifice their rights.
But I’m certain that the law could be devised in a way in which the release of tax and FBI records is the cost of entry into the presidential sweepstakes — a voluntary exchange for the right to run for the highest office in the land.
Trump and Bernie Sanders built movements this year based, in part, on the widespread belief that a few power brokers are sitting behind a big curtain rigging the economic and political systems in their own favor. Americans don’t trust their government and institutions anymore. And it’s hard to see how either of these candidates will be able to restore the relationship between the people and their government.
By assessing a new cost on running for president — namely the disclosure of tax and FBI records — we might just get more candidates who have nothing to hide and fewer candidates who have become adept at hiding things.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.