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McClellan: An old-line liberal yearns for a party with wit

McClellan: An old-line liberal yearns for a party with wit

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I was raised in Chicago, and I am tolerant, sometimes even fond, of official malfeasance. But there is a right way and wrong way to do it, and in that sense, my fellow Democrats in St. Louis County have lost their way.

If you read this newspaper, you already know the story. The Democrats have a 4-3 majority on the County Council, and Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy has used that one-vote majority as a club to pound her Republican opponents. She bullied through a bill to disallow council oversight on the millions of dollars the county is getting from the feds for coronavirus relief. She acts like a character in the “Blazing Saddles” parody of “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”

“We don’t need no stinking oversight!”

That is not an easy argument for a legislator to make, and Clancy has been roundly criticized.

“It’s not normal in government to do that,” said Ken Warren, a political science professor. “I don’t believe giving all that money to the county executive to spend at will is a good idea.” The Post-Dispatch editorial page weighed in on the matter. “Even if they have the best of intentions, their backroom, partisan maneuvers stink of impropriety.”

For a liberal Democrat the rule is this: When you’ve lost the Post-Dispatch editorial board, you’ve lost the room.

So Clancy decided to respond. In an op-ed essay in this paper, she blamed the Republicans. “I value cooperation and the opportunity to work across party lines,” she wrote.

That is the wrong way to defend malfeasance. Never deny the obvious. It’s like telling people, “I think you’re stupid.”

When the late great Mayor Richard J. Daley was asked about reports of widespread voter fraud in Cook County, he asked a question of his own. “You don’t think they’re stealing votes downstate?”

People appreciate that kind of candor.

In the same vein, maybe even in the same election, John F. Kennedy responded to allegations that he was paying people like Daley to steal votes. Kennedy said he had strict instructions from his father. “Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

That’s the perfect tone.

Part of the criticism directed toward Clancy has to do with the fact that her brother is the campaign manager for County Executive Sam Page, who, thanks to Clancy, will now be free to dole out the federal money without council oversight. I remember how Daley responded to criticism that he was steering contracts to a company that had hired his sons. Again, he responded with a question. What kind of world would it be if a father couldn’t help his children?

So sure, Clancy is helping her brother. What kind of sister would she be if she didn’t?

I would have advised her to take that approach. Family values.

“My brother isn’t quite smart enough to be a professor or an editorial writer, so I had to help him get something.”

Had Clancy adopted that tone, she might have upset some of her young progressive followers. They’re idealistic. But old-line liberals would have been thrilled. It would be a return to the Democratic Party that didn’t take itself so seriously.

”I’m glad she’s on our side,” we’d say to each other.

Sadly, admitting malfeasance has gone out of style among many Democrats. As a party, we’ve become preachy. Self-righteousness always ends badly.

For example, what are we supposed to do now about Joe Biden? He is accused of sexual assault. The problem would not be half as bad had Democrats not gone so wild about an unsupported allegation against U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — an allegation from high school! During the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, we were all about “believing the woman.” Now, not so much.

By the way, I suspect this will end badly for Clancy and the Democrats in the county. The government will be giving away a lot of money in a hurry, and some of it will invariably go to people or companies who don’t deserve it as much as some of the people and companies who won’t get it. When that happens, the blame game will start, and the Republicans will pin the tail on the donkey.

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