PARTISAN AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

Tuned in to Sean Hannity’s convention coverage on the radio as he was complaining about the convention’s failure to address the “real issues” of the campaign, which apparently are whether America is mean (or just whiny?) and whether Michelle Obama loves America sufficiently. It was just in time to hear him defending John McCain’s participation in the Keating Five scandal that ended most participants’ careers. The defense? McCain wasn’t seen to have broken laws by “partisan Democrat” Bob Bennett. Yes, that’s the same Bob Bennett who John McCain recently hired to try to kill a New York Times story suggesting more recent impropriety with a lobbyist.

GOTCHA GOTTA GO? NO.

Apparently, Sam Waterston has ended his much-lamented silence in American political discourse and spoken out to urge his adoring fans to heed the call of the “American idealists” at Unity08. They’re the folks who believe that all the scourges of modern American politics – special interest-driven corruption, nasty gotcha politics, the belief that women’s rights is a crucial issue – could be beaten back if only there was a presidential ticket composed not of Democrats or Republicans but of one of each, and chosen not by people who turn out in primaries but by people who turn out in primaries held over the internet by “American idealists.”

For those stubborn folks for whom Sam Waterson having “looked at it closely”, isn’t sufficient evidence that Unity08 “could save this country we love,” some obvious questions present themselves. Well, a lot of obvious questions.

Here’s one: Would a decline in gotcha politics really go hand in hand with a decline in corruption?

The conflation of the two is commonplace in media narratives grasping for any explanation of voter disgust with Congress that doesn’t involve the kinds of laws the Congress is passing or isn’t. But I think the irony here is that one of few functional bulwarks against rampant corruption in Washington is gotcha politics.

If our elected officials were circumspect about not disparaging the character of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, would the likes of Conrad Burns and Bob Ney have gone down to defeat? Would incoming legislators, new and old, have as much reason to fear following in their footsteps? Quotes from CREW’s Melanie Sloan in and of themselves are simply not enough to grab media and voter attention, let alone overcome all the advantages of incumbency. What helps the charges stick? Relentless criticism from the folks with a chance, at least sometimes, of getting heard: your challenger, and your fellow elected officials. If you don’t have to fear getting gotcha-ed, there’s more cause to do gotcha-worthy things.

Now of course it would be nice to truly venal behavior by elected officials got called out on both sides of the aisle. It’s simply not credible to claim, as the Unity08 folks and much of the media do, that both parties have the same track record on this. Compare the treatment of Bill Jefferson (D-LA) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) by their party leaders. One lost his committee chairmanship. The other was positioned for a good stretch to remain Majority Leader. Unfortunately, opinion leaders who can count more adherents than Sam Waterston delight in the myth that the two parties are bearers of equal and opposite corruption, and that that corruption – the reward of money with power and of power with money – has no relationship to ideology.

That said, when elected officials do speak in one voice across party lines, it’s as often to unite across party lines in defense of questionable congressional practices as in condemnation of them. Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert stood together in a show of bipartisanship to condemn the FBI search of Jefferson’s office. Senators and congressmen of both parties stand together to raise their salaries swiftly and quietly. They stand firm in bipartisan defense of gerrymandering congressional districts. That’s because no matter how otherwise representative your member of congress is of you, she will always be fundamentally unrepresentative in that she is herself a member of congress. Dave Barry once said the best way to get great Nielson ratings would be to make a sitcom about a Nielson family. Similarly, if you’re looking to find policies that members of Congress acorss the political spectrum will support, the right place to start is with policies that make it easier, more enjoyable, and more permanent to be a member of Congress. If you want to see those policies stop, bemoaning gotcha politics is not the place to start.

DEEP FREEZE

The past week has offered the odd spectacle of Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert standing shoulder to shoulder in defending a Democratic congressman’s supposed right not to have criminal investigators raid his office. On the law, I think they’re on the wrong side. As Akhil Amar (whose lecture was one of the only courses my bro and I took together) writes:

W.J. is a target of a criminal corruption investigation, and if criminally charged, he would have no more Arrest Clause protection than any of the countless other sitting Congress members who have been criminally prosecuted over the years—Dan Rostenkowski, Duke Cunningham, and Tom DeLay, to name just three. Since W.J. has no immunity from an ordinary criminal arrest, it is hard to see why he has some kind of blanket immunity from an ordinary criminal search to uncover evidence of his suspected crime. If other white-collar suspects are vulnerable to office searches, why is William Jefferson any different?

In terms of political strategy, Hastert’s move (and the zeal of Sensenbrenner et al to follow him) is noteworthy because Jefferson’s case was the only one (contra John Solomon) offering serious ammunition for the Republicans’ claim that the current crop of corruption is a bipartisan problem. Had Hastert and company wanted, with a media establishment all too eager to expound on the “everybody does it narrative,” they could have a primed a whole raft of stories this week to the effect that Democrats and Republicans both have to get their houses in order, and the only difference is that the Democrats’ house includes a refrigerator with $90,000 hidden inside. That claim is bogus (and it’s worth noting that Jefferson is as “New Democrat” as they get), but it would have gotten traction nonetheless.

So the Republican leadership could not have passed on it lightly. Apparently, they decided that a week of reinforcing the idea that Democrats are equally corrupt was worth less than a week of reinforcing the idea that members of Congress have the right not to be aggressively investigated. The fact that of the two opportunities, the Republicans chose to spend this week lying the groundwork for the idea that congressmen have special privacy rights (and seeming civic-minded for throwing a fit in defense of a Democrat) suggests that they expect a slew of additional Republican congressmen to come under investigation. And chances are they’re right.

What’s harder to explain is Nancy Pelosi’s choice to get on board with the whole exercise. Presumably, she sees in this debacle a chance to exacerbate intra-GOP tensions and reinforce a narrative of executive overreach by the Bush administration. But when it comes to dividing the party on itself over raids like this one, she can only get in the way. And when it comes to taking a stand against executive overreach, the rights of congressmen are the last place the American people want or need the Democrats to assert themselves. As Barney Frank said on the floor:

I think, in particular, for the leadership of this House, which has stood idly by while this administration has ignored the rights of citizens, to then say we have special rights as Members of Congress is wholly inappropriate.

The Jefferson case, inconvenient as it is, allows the Democratic leaders to differentiate themselves from their Republican counterparts. Pelosi can and should condemn William Jefferson in terms that Dennis Hastert will never condemn Tom DeLay. That’s because the nexus of corporate interest and political power that does so much to breed corruption in Washington is one which undergirds the modern Republican party and which, for all the efforts of some Democrats to cozy up to it, is fundamentally opposed to the long-term interests of the Democratic party.

Pelosi did the right thing by calling on William Jefferson to resign. She could drawn a further contrast by coming out strongly against Hastert’s claim of special privilege for him. Just as Hastert has more credibility defending the supposed privacy rights of a member of the opposition, Pelosi would have more credibility denying those claims when applied to a member of her own party. Instead, look for Dennis Hastert to invoke the Jefferson precedent to call on Nancy Pelosi to join him in throwing up roadblocks to a full investigation of another crooked colleague – or perhaps of Hastert himself.

ABRA-MATHON

On today’s YDN opinion page, Eli Luberoff writes a letter responding to the statement in my Tuesday column that

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.

Eli agrees with the second part of the sentence, but he disputes the first part – that Abramoff made “strategic donations to members of both parties.” In retrospect, my wording was needlessly imprecise. Literally, Abramoff did make “strategic donations to member of both parties,” in that he made in-kind donations to Democrats as well as Republicans. More important, though, are the donations Abramoff directed through his clients to Democrats as well as Republicans, which were more substantial. Better wording here would have more clearly encompassed those contributions, which while heavily skewed towards Republicans, didn’t go exclusively to them. But as my column made clear, I agree with Eli that this is a Republican scandal through and through.

My Tuesday piece also comes up in Roger Low’s column today. Roger notes that Democrats do corrupt things sometimes too, which I think we can all acknowledge without losing sight of the underlying ideological edge of the Abramoff scandal: this is a story about concentrated economic power trumping popular majorities in setting policy and distributing resources. Roger rightfully calls the Democrats on their failure to champion a more aggressive reform agenda, and then veers off into an encomium to John McCain, who – besides being a staunch conservative except for his opposition to torture, global warming, and soft money (talk about defining deviancy down) – hasn’t championed any of those reforms either.

ABRAMOFF PLEADS GUILTY

Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty today to charges of conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion under a plea bargain which limits him to ten years in prison. TPM and TPMCafe are Abramoff central today – check out the insight and speculation over there. As Josh observes:

This seems more like the beginning of a long process. They go after Ney first and continue their investigation, with Abramoff’s fate hanging in the balance, depending on how cooperative he chooses to be in providing information on coconspirators and sundry bad acts.

Abramoff is a bad, bad man (more on this from me here, here, and here) who did bad things not – as talking heads will tell you tomorrow – out of simple personal greed but as a devoted cog in a fundamentally corrupt corporate-GOP alliance which continues to wreak havoc on the country. So taking away his toys and using his testimony to go after his proven accomplices is a step – but only a step – in restoring honor and integrity to government.

Max Sawicky offered a sobering reminder that even if we’re facing a “Watergate moment,” Watergate itself, and the Democrats’ response, failed to stem the rising conservative tide in this country:

Watergate ushered in a generation of Democratic politicians with little in the way of ideological commitment other than honesty. Not long after Watergate we got the Reagan revolution. Honesty is not enough.

In response, Josh argued that

the country was in the midst of a broad shift toward the right. The scandals surrounding Watergate upended the political dynamic in the country but not the ideological one…the other side’s scandals can reshuffle the political cards temporarily. But it probably won’t be for that long if the scandals aren’t intrinsically connected to the bases of the afflicted party’s power or if their fall-out doesn’t catalyze a some deeper political and ideological reconfiguration in the country. Nixon’s dirty-tricksterism wasn’t at the heart of the rise of the American right in the late 20th century. So it continued on without him.

Thing is, whether you buy Max’s argument that the attention to Watergate ultimately hastened the rise of Reaganism or Josh’s that it merely failed to do more than slow it, I think the key point going forward is that it’s not just the facts on the ground that determine whether the scandals now inundating the White House are understood as “intrinsically connected to the bases of the afflicted party’s power.” Conservatives, with many in the media in tow, aren’t just trying to obscure the partisan nature of the current scandal crop – they’re trying to obscure the ideological nature of it. That’s because they recognize that this is about more than just the 2006 elections, important as they are – it’s about public understandings of what kind of people are fit to lead the country. So it’s on progressives to expose not just the partisan narrative behind these scandals but the ideological one as well:

Republicans take bribes from men like Jack Abramoff because they are the party of big business, and they represent wealthy elites pushing policies that hurt working families.

Republicans lie about what their intelligence says and how they get it because they need to justify immoral wars that make us less safe and obscure their attacks on our privacy that leave us less free.

Needless to say, these talking points will not win any points from Al From, Chris Matthews, or Joe Klein. But if it’s elections you care about, each of these men only gets one vote. And if it’s ideological realignment you care about, they may get even less.

MEET THE NEW BOSS, STRANGELY REMINISCENT OF THE OLD BOSS

(Apologies to The Who, and by extension, to Zach)

Via David Sirota, here’s an illuminating Post piece from ’03 on then-Whip, now-Majority Leader Roy Blunt:

Only hours after Rep. Roy Blunt was named to the House’s third-highest leadership job in November, he surprised his fellow top Republicans by trying to quietly insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the 475-page bill creating a Department of Homeland Security, according to several people familiar with the effort. The new majority whip, who has close personal and political ties to the company, instructed congressional aides to add the tobacco provision to the bill — then within hours of a final House vote — even though no one else in leadership supported it or knew he was trying to squeeze it in. ..Blunt has received large campaign donations from Philip Morris, his son works for the company in Missouri and the House member has a close personal relationship with a Washington lobbyist for the firm…Several [GOP insiders] say they were struck by Blunt’s willingness to go out on a limb for a company to which he has ties. What’s more, he did it within hours of climbing to the House leadership’s third-highest rung, a notable achievement for a man who came to Washington less than six years ago…

Psyched to see what new and innovative kinds of cronyism he rolls out now that he’s on the second rung from the top?

Blunt’s ascension only underscores the importance of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s point about how unnecessary DeLay is to DeLayism, and of Nathan Newman’s observation that making the GOP pay for DeLayism requires a willingness to take on the corporate interests that bankroll it.

(Update: Post altered to erase all evidence of my total lack of culture)