Cash-and-Carry Democrats

HURRICANE-STRENGTH GUSTS from the liberal blogosphere these past two weeks have buffeted and rocked anyone who has dared to suggest that the Jack Abramoff scandal is in any manner a bipartisan affair. After the Washington Post’s public editor, Deborah Howell, made just such a suggestion, the Internet liberals — from Atrios to Kos to Firedoglake — backed Howell into a cyber corner and let loose their readers on her for an online gangbang. After she was accused of unfairly linking Democrats to what is a strictly Republican mess, Howell’s blog page soon brimmed with hundreds of posted insults and epithets branding her everything from a Republican patsy, to a traitor, to a sexual pervert. Several thousand other e-mails directed her way by the lib-blogs continued the assault.

It was all a stunning demonstration of everything that’s wrong with the blogosphere. It was also one more vivid demonstration of the worst sort of knee-jerk liberalism. At a time when Democrats can’t win an election, some frustrated libs believe they are “pushing back” by electronically lynching anyone who strays from accepted dogma. Oh, how brave to send some hate e-mail! The besieged Howell eventually offered a semiretraction, a clarification. She had, indeed, overstated the Democratic involvement in the Abramoff sleaze. But there was, nevertheless, an ugly truth entwined in her allegation of bipartisan guilt.

The Abramoff scandal, per se, is absolutely a unilateral Republican scandal. But the so-called “culture of corruption” from which it emerged is absolutely bipartisan. Even the most liberal of Democrats — so liberal he’s actually an Independent — Congressman Bernie Sanders acknowledged as much this week when he told public radio that every bill, every measure that comes before the House is, in effect, “written by Big Money.” Insurance reform is written by health-industry lobbyists, bankruptcy reform by the banks, privacy laws by the credit-card companies. And tax-cut laws are written by the wealthiest interests, which benefit from the cuts.

Yes, the GOP controls the Congress — and therefore the ebb and flow of legislation. But every U.S. Congress member is on the take, albeit the legal sort. If not in the thrall of insurance companies and banks, then they are just as much on the dole of public-employee unions and Indian casinos.

I HAD TO CHUCKLE, INDEED, when I read the recent piece by Greg Sargent in the liberal American Prospect trying to offload the current bribery scandal strictly onto Republican shoulders. After much number crunching, Sargent ably proves that Abramoff didn’t “direct” any significant amount of the casino contributions he managed to Democrats. He, instead, redirected the flood of gambling cash away from Democrats — to whom it had mostly gone during the previous decades — and more toward Republicans. From those funds, we’re reminded, Abramoff skimmed and bribed and bought off. The Democrats, by extension, are innocent.

Sargent approvingly quotes campaign-finance specialist Dwight Morris as saying: “If you’re going to make the case that this is a bipartisan scandal, you have to really stretch the imagination. . . . Most individual tribes were predominantly Democratic givers through the last decade. Only Abramoff’s clients switched dramatically from largely Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican donors, and that happened only after he got his hands on them.”

I suppose it depends, then, on your definition of scandal. Abramoff’s behavior easily qualifies. But what about those tens of millions forked over by Indian tribes to Democrats over the previous decade? Not scandalous? None of that money was given to protect minority rights, or to support better health care or education.

Those donations to Democrats were made, precisely, for the same sort of reason they would later be given to Republicans: to defend the small, wealthy gambling tribes against taxation, regulation and free-market competition. The very same reasons why Big Pharma, or the finance-insurance lobbies, butter up Republicans.

Abramoff and his allies may be more ruthless, skankier and more willing to break an already established set of laws. But the basic operating principle of both parties is identical: cash and carry.

To glimpse the similarities, we need look no further than the toothless remedies that are being put forward now to soothe public tempers over the Abramoff affair. Both parties are clamoring for “lobbyist reform.” As if the central maladies in our political system are free golf trips and lunches and the occasional stuffed envelope. This is a little like trying to solve a national alcoholism epidemic by barring airlines from serving free booze in first class.

How about reforming the addicts instead? In place of “lobbyist reform,” how about “elected-official reform”? What’s being ignored here is the core issue: “The pay-to-play system through which money-laden lobbyists and their special-interest clients deliver the contributions necessary to run a viable political campaign — the same cash that ultimately leads to special-interest policy favors further down the road,” as stated by Public Campaign, the nonprofit group that advocates publicly financed elections.

What a refreshing shock to the system it would have been, what a pivotal point in American politics we would have experienced, if — on the day after the Abramoff indictment — the 250 House and Senate Democrats had convened on the Capitol steps, identified themselves as addicts, and sworn right there and then to go cold turkey. Maybe we could have made this November’s election a real showdown between the corrupt and the reformed. If only the Democrats could show that much courage and imagination. Then again, if only my aunt could grow some balls.

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