When Representative Charles Rangel goes on trial on Thursday it might be the first time that a sitting United States congressman has done so since Jim Traficant was convicted of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion in 2002. Rangel and Traficant are kindred spirits of a sort, for each exhibits the kind of imperious arrogance that Americans loathe, especially when it bubbles to the surface among their elected officials. The difference between the two is that Traficant played a bit part among Democrats eight years ago and it was thus easy for the party to wash its hands of him. Rangel, on the other hand, is a stalwart among Democrats, a heavy hitter with strong ties to other heavy hitters, up to and including the Speaker of the House. If Rangel goes through with the trial – and he says he will – it will be a lot harder for Democrats to wish this scandal away than it was in 2002.
Published reports indicate that Dems are desperate for Rangel to cut a deal and avoid trial, but the congressman stubbornly refuses to do so. He wants his day in court and believes that he will be vindicated in the end. That attitude is reminiscent of another prominent Democrat who proclaimed that he wanted nothing more than the opportunity to tell his side of a sordid story, but when ex-governor Rod Blagojevich had his day in court recently it turned out that Blago didn’t have the guts to make his dubious case. Might Rangel also lose his nerve once prosecutors outline the case against him? Probably not. Over the last few years the octogenarian congressman has shown that he has grown increasingly detached from reality. His “watch your back” warning to the president when Obama visited Harlem, his declaration that the only people opposed to the health care bill were white southerners and his stubborn refusal to give up the Ways and Means Committee for so long are all signs that Charles Rangel lives on a planet that only vaguely resembles Earth.
Democrats understand that the longer the Rangel saga plays out, the more damage it will do to them in November, but they don’t really understand why. Voters are upset with Democrats to be sure, but they’re more upset with the overall perception that America is being governed by a detached, self-absorbed “ruling class” that disregards the will of the populace and whose contempt for the average American is poorly concealed indeed. That’s a problem that crosses party lines, which is why the tea party movement is so careful not to directly attach itself to the GOP. Tea partiers will vote for Republicans in overwhelming numbers come November, but their underlying message is clear: they’re voting to get rid of privileged insiders and if the fresh faced Republicans whom the movement hopes to empower during this election cycle fall prey to the same temptations, they will be held accountable as well.