A week ago, GOP lobbyist extraordinaire Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy. Under a plea bargain, he’ll likely spend a decade in jail at most, after testifying against a rogue’s gallery of right-wing operatives, congressmen and senators. Democrats in Congress and across the country are understandably glad to see this man go down, both for the seriousness of his crimes and for the potential political windfall from his testimony. But those in the party and outside of it who are concerned with securing a more progressive future in the long term still have their work cut out for them in making this scandal stick.
To their credit, congressional Democrats have been resolute in routing attempts by Republicans and journalists to paint the Abramoff scandal as a nonpartisan affair. As Senator Harry Reid reminded Chris Wallace, “This is a Republican scandal.” While Abramoff made strategic donations to members of both parties, it was Republicans with whom he collaborated to break the law and the trust of the American people. Among those Republicans was Congressman Bob Ney, who has admitted to being the “Representative No. 1” named in Abramoff’s indictment and was tasked by Speaker Dennis Hastert with leading ethics classes for the rest of the House. Abramoff has been a crucial player in a political-corporate alliance born from years of work by Tom DeLay through his “K Street Project” to restrict Washington access to Republican lobbyists and firms. The patronage machine he built didn’t happen on the cheap. Jack Abramoff, a pioneer among Bush’s fund-raising “Pioneers” (total funds raised for Bush: $94,000), made it happen.
But this is a right-wing scandal as well as a Republican one. While the Democrats have made clear the partisan angle on the Abramoff scandal, they’ve done little to demonstrate the ideological one. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi has taken to the news to decry a Republican “culture of corruption.” Democratic pundits have suggested that their party is distinguished from the GOP in that it took 50 years of Democratic control of the House to develop the kind of corruption that’s overtaken the GOP in a decade. This narrative plays into the hands of conservatives: All incumbents, given time, are worsened by Washington, and all incumbent parties will eventually be corrupted by the allure of absolute power. Such a narrative may help intensify anti-incumbent sentiment nationally. But in terms of winning the ideological struggle for the soul of the country, it’s worth very little.
Conservatives understand this. That’s why, as those whose first loyalty is to the Republican party seek to minimize the current scandal, those whose first loyalty is to the conservative movement are unsparing in their outrage. The movement organs are busily spinning a tale of conservative reformers who betrayed the principles of conservatism. In last week’s Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson wrote that the question has always been “Would the Republicans change Washington, or would it be the other way around?” In next week’s issue, Matthew Continetti writes that this scandal is simply “about how Washington really works.” Peggy Noonan, willing to lose partisan points in order to score ideological ones, described the Abramoff scandal as an outrage caused by “big government.”
It’s easy to understand why so many liberals would choose, at a time when every part of official Washington is enemy territory, to echo conservatives such as those at the Weekly Standard in blaming Washington for bringing out the worst in everyone. And indeed there is much that needs to be fixed about the way business is done there. But making the scandal about Washington is a tragically short-sighted strategy.
The Abramoff scandal is not just about the current Republican party. It is about a right-wing ideology that shreds safeguards against corruption, whose supporters are rewarded for defying popular will through corruption, and which is foisted on the American people through corruption. What Abramoff accomplished — the ascendancy of “one dollar, one vote” over “one person, one vote” — is the logical end of the plutocratic policies advanced by the political right. Men like Jack Abramoff keep right-wing politicians — not just the current crop — from offering programs which could extend opportunity and security to more Americans, and men like Jack Abramoff protect them from suffering the electoral consequences.
It’s the politics of rewarding power with money and money with power — not the incumbency of the current Republicans — that is at the heart of the current scandal. A decade ago, Grover Norquist told the National Journal that “What the Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs.” Norquist, one of the major architects of the modern conservative movement and one of Abramoff’s closest associates, knows as well as anyone that the current scandal is about much more than him, his friend or the current Republican majority. It’s a test of the resilience of an alliance between businessmen, politicians and lobbyists that conservatives have spent decades driving to dominance in this country. If that infrastructure and the ideological assumptions that reinforce it go unchallenged, then the Democrats could win the battle this fall but lose the war. Then, as Max Sawicky warns, 2006 could be a repeat of 1974, when Democrats won back the House by challenging not the ideology of the Republicans but the character of their leadership — only to hand the presidency six years later to that darling of ideological conservatives everywhere, Ronald Reagan.
Josh Eidelson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.