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Are campaigns responsible for the behavior of their donors?

Unpacking the bizarre attempt to blame Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for Harvey Weinstein.

Harvey Weinstein in May 2017 Jacopo Raule/Contributor/Getty Images

Recent revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s various alleged sexual assaults have a political angle given Weinstein’s longstanding and generous support for Democratic candidates. But efforts to turn this into a political albatross for Democrats seem unusual and bizarre, as they seek to hold a party and its candidates accountable for the past behavior of one of its supporters.

It’s unsurprising that Republicans, and particularly the White House, would seize on criminal behavior of a Democratic donor and try to make it a scandal for the party. The White House is eager to change the subject from an onslaught of bad news, from a botched Puerto Rico storm response to an unfulfilled legislative agenda to the secretary of state calling the president a “moron.” In particular, President Trump’s own boasts of sexual assault, released on tape a year ago this week, have left the White House highly vulnerable on this issue, and they’re happy to make it look like something that basically all powerful men do.

To a remarkable degree, however, mainstream media sources have been helping the White House frame the Weinstein story as a Democratic scandal. A New York Times editorial chastised Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their silence on the matter, arguing, “If such powerful leaders take the money and stay mum, who will speak for women like Mr. Weinstein’s accusers?” (Clinton and Obama have both since issued condemnations of Weinstein.)

CNN’s Chris Cillizza, meanwhile, has been sounding a constant drumbeat against Clinton, Obama, and other Democratic leaders for not condemning Weinstein strongly enough. He complained about the “deafening silence” of Democratic leaders on the subject, and then when Hillary Clinton broke her silence, he complained that it took her too long.

Is this a legitimate line of criticism? Framed more generally, are parties and leaders responsible for the behavior of their donors?

Tying parties and leaders to unpopular donors is certainly nothing new. Donald Trump took some heat during the 2016 Republican nomination contest for taking a donation from white separatist William Daniel Johnson and offered to return the money. Democratic Senate candidate Russ Feingold returned campaign donations from a law firm that engaged in some shady financial transactions. Obama returned donations from people who turned out to be registered lobbyists, as he’d promised in 2008 and 2012. Mitt Romney was criticized in 2012 for taking funds from the CEO of the company that runs Penthouse magazine.

This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the system of private campaign financing used in the United States. Campaigns are expensive and increasingly so, there are caps on individual donations, and campaigns must disclose who gives them direct contributions. Thus it is relatively easy for journalists and opposition researchers to go through campaign finance reports and highlight contributions from unsavory donors.

In general, by my read, donations are perceived to be problematic when they come from a source with unpalatable political viewpoints — a white supremacist, a violent extremist, etc. Campaigns desire money, obviously, but a few thousand dollars is not worth the bad publicity of being tied to an extreme group or individual and having to defensively explain why your candidate is actually a moderate. So campaigns are usually quick to return such checks.

On other occasions, campaign donations are seen as potentially corrupting. Sheldon Adelson’s eight-figure contributions to a Newt Gingrich-aligned Super PAC almost singlehandedly financed the former House speaker’s 2012 presidential campaign, generating concern that Gingrich would be a frontman for Adelson should he win the GOP nomination.

Harvey Weinstein’s support for Democrats, however, is highly unusual as political scandal material. His reprehensible and likely criminal alleged behavior has only become widely known in the past few weeks — nearly a year after the 2016 presidential election. To be sure, quite a few people in the entertainment industry seem to have known about the behavior he’s accused of for years to one extent or another. But it strains credulity to suggest that Clinton and Obama (whose teenage daughter interned for Weinstein last summer) knew the extent of Weinstein’s predatory tendencies in the past.

In sum, Clinton, Obama, and other Democrats are being blamed for having taken money in the past from someone who has recently been widely accused of being a sexual predator. It is akin to holding fans of the 1970s Buffalo Bills and the 1978 film Capricorn One accountable for O.J. Simpson’s behavior in 1994.

This sort of scandal coverage may be useful in the long run by promoting a discussion about the obligations candidates have to their donors and about the campaign finance system in general. But the idea that a recipient is somehow culpable for the later-disclosed criminal activity of a donor seems rather thin gruel.