The emerging difficulties
When Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid first began their "culture of corruption" drumbeat over the Abramoff scandal, Democrats' hopes of retaking Congress soared. After all, Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and Adam Kidan -- the men at the heart of the scandal -- were all Republicans, and both Abramoff and Scanlon had ties to GOP House leader Tom DeLay.
But the Democrats have been unable to get traction on the scandal for a few obvious reasons. First, there was no cover-up: Abramoff, Scanlon and Kidan all pleaded guilty and cooperated with federal investigators. In the Bush administration, Justice Department prosecutors appeared to cut no slack to these GOP allies. This is in stark contrast to the Clinton-era Chinagate scandals, when several witnesses fled the country and others pleaded the Fifth Amendment.
Secondly, DeLay resigned his leadership post, and House Republicans elected new leaders pledged to reform.
Third and most important, however, Democrats have been unable to "spin" the fact that their own members received hefty contributions from Abramoff's clients -- about $1.1 million in the 2000-2006 election cycles, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Facts are stubbon things, and this little fact clearly frustrates Democratic leaders. Remember: Only Democrats were implicated in Chinagate, perhaps the worst campaign-finance scandal in American history. Yet, though Harry Reid and others insist that the Abramoff affair is strictly a "Republican scandal," there remains the inescapable fact of the "Abramoff Democrats" -- Reid himself prominent among them, having collected $30,500 from Abramoff's clients.
A desperate Democrat effort to spin the Abramoff scandal is represented by a recent article in the American Prospect reporting a special study commissioned by that liberal journal, which comes up with slightly different numbers than the CRP -- but the same basic conclusion:
[I]f you total up all the contributions Abramoff’s clients made, it comes to $1,845,975 to Republicans and $794,483 to Democrats -- well over twice as much to Republicans as to Democrats.
So, according to this liberal analysis, Democrats got 30% of contributions from Abramoff's clients. The CRP figures show that 34% of the tribal contributions went to Democrats. But either way, it's around one-third. The American Prospect holds this up as an "a-ha" exculpation of Democrats -- but wait a minute. How is it that Democrats managed to get something like 1/3 of the rakeoff in a Republican scandal?
Consider that the GOP has controlled the House since 1995, has held the White House since 2001, and has had a majority in the Senate for all but the few months when "Jumping Jim" Jeffords created a short-lived Democratic majority. In other words, Republicans have dominated the federal government during this period -- yet Democrats still got at least 30% of the campaign contributions made by Abramoff's tribal clients.
Moreover, according to CRP, several Democrats were among the top recipients of tribal cash from Abramoff's clients: Sen. Patty Murray ($40,980); Rep. Charles Rangel ($32,000); Rep. Patrick Kennedy ($31,000); Sen. Harry Reid ($30,500); and Sen. Byron Dorgan ($28,000). If all cash connected to Abramoff is tainted by the "culture of corruption," then what can the Democratic leadership say about these five Dems who, between them, pocketed over $160,000 from Abramoff's clients?
That Abramoff, a Republican, directed his clients' giving in such a way as to favor the GOP is not surprising. But why were these Democrats so happy to take the money that they now loudly denounce as tainted?
Moreover, as Charles Hurt of The Washington Times reported last week, if taking campaign contributions from lobbyists amounts to a "culture of corruption," Democrats are actually worse offenders than Republicans:
Democrats have taken more money from lobbyists than Republicans during the past 15 years, according to an independent analysis of campaign contributions.
Since the 1990 election cycle, Democrats have accepted more than $53 million from lobbyists while Republicans have taken more than $48 million for their election campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Data provided by the nonpartisan group also shows that when Democrats controlled Congress in the early 1990s, they consistently hauled in more than 70 percent of the town's lobbyist money.
Contrary to the obvious hopes of Reid, Pelosi and liberal spinners, American voters are not stupid. As bad as the Abramoff scandal is for the GOP, it's obvious that Democrats have their own ethical problems and -- if past history is any indication -- electing a Democratic majority to Congress would actually make the "culture of corruption" much worse.
Karl Rove must be smiling as watches the "Abramoff Democrats" putting all their 2006 election eggs into this flimy basket of scandal.
Wait! Are you telling me that an American Prospect-commissioned analysis showed that after gambling tribes hired a staunchly Republican lobbyist, those tribes increased their giving to Republicans? Holy scoop, Batman! Stop the presses and get me Lois Lane!
The American Prospect's analysis, clearly meant to be "damning" to the GOP, actually means this: Nothing.
First, the analysis is just one among several metric snapshots of the Abramoff scandal, each one showing a different level of Abramoff's involvement with the two major parties. Second, it is not illegal for tribes to contribute money to members of Congress, and it is not even illegal for tribes to ask members of Congress to do what they want them to do. This is called lobbying and is protected by the Constitution as citizens' right to petition their government.
What is illegal is influence-peddling, something some Republicans and, it appears, some Democrats may be guilty of with respect to Abramoff clients. So, until it is known whether any, some, or all of Abramoff's clients' dollars were quids that purchased quo, it cannot be known whether the Abramoff scandal is Republican, Democratic, or bipartisan.
The only legitimate answer to that question will come not from the breathless pigeonholing of partisan magazines, but from -- as we've already seen in the case of Duke Cunningham -- the Bush justice department. That's something we couldn't count on when Janet Reno was in charge.