It's pretty clear to me that Beltway insiders are aware of the explosive "Watergate" style possibilities of the Tom DeLay scandal, but I don't get the impression that anyone knows quite what to make of it or how to exploit it. And perhaps it's one of those things that's best left to unfold naturally. If it does unravel completely it could be the end of the ascendency of the conservative movement and we could, perhaps, get down to the important business of spending the next generation undoing all the damage they've done. It is, after all, out specialty.
Franklin Foer writes a very interesting article in this week's TNR that gets to much of what's important about Jack Abramoff and how he fits into the bigger scheme of things. It's not just that he was a pal of Delay's or that he was a crook himself. It's much bigger than that; it touches upon important elements of the entire modern Republican Party and exposes the web of connections between the conservative movement, the right wing press, the Christian right and the Republican congress as entirely corrupt.
DeLay, though, was not the only prominent conservative to see Russia the Abramoff way. Two months before DeLay touched down there, Abramoff's firm shepherded a contingent of Washington journalists and thinkers around Moscow--an itinerary of meetings and meals designed to please the trip's funder, a Russian energy concern called NaftaSib. This journey included Tod Lindberg, then-editor of The Washington Times editorial page; Insight magazine's James Lucier; and Erica Tuttle, The National Interest's assistant managing editor at the time.
Such trips were essential prongs of Abramoff's lobbying campaigns. The conservative movement's think tanks, newspapers, and little magazines are filled with junketeers who have traveled the world on his dime. "It was like, you weren't cool if you didn't go," remembers Marshall Wittmann, former legislative director of the Christian Coalition. And that's precisely as Abramoff planned it. In a draft of a 2000 proposal to represent the Malaysian government, he and his colleagues boasted, "Our firm is one of the most expert in organizing effective trips to distant destinations, having already brought literally hundreds of such notables [as think-tank scholars and journalists] to destinations ranging from Pakistan to Russia to Saipan and within the U.S. mainland." They told the Malaysians that these trips produce a "certain outcome": "timely and powerful editorials and articles" conveying his clients' messages. "Our firm has facilitated hundreds of such articles and editorials."
It's one thing to imagine that politicians, with their need for campaign cash, could be swayed by a lobbyist. Journalists and intellectuals, on the other hand, even those who admit their ideological predispositions, aren't supposed to be so susceptible to influence-peddlers. Abramoff, however, proved otherwise. He understood how the universe of thinkers and activists associated with the Republican Party operated, how to manipulate them with ideological buzzwords, and how to influence them with access and money. Jack Abramoff didn't just corrupt Tom DeLay. He helped corrupt the whole conservative movement.
Foer makes much of this idea that Abramoff corrupted the conservative movement, but I think the evidence show that the conservative movement was bound for corruption from the get-go. The modern Republicans, from their earliest incarnation in the 60's, starting with still active operatives like Morton Blackwell and Karl Rove to the next generation of Abramoff, Norquist and Reed, have always operated as dirty tricksters, and corrupt power brokers. The modern Republican Party is not, and never has been, the party of Ronald Reagan, not really. It's the party of Richard Nixon.
Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist came together as a power in the College Republicans during the Reagan years. Blackwell, Rove, Atwater, and many others powerful operatives and strategists had cut their teeth there, as well, but these guys came in at the beginning of the heady Reagan years and they were fueled by the belief that they were on the permanent winning side of history. The triumverate of Norquist, Abramoff and Reed is legendary --- and they are all implicated in the burgeoning Jack Abramoff/Tom DeLay scandal.
They have come to represent the three most important wings of the modern conservative movement --- the Christian Right (Reed), the movement ideologues (Norquist) and the big money boys (Abramoff.) They are the Republican party. And they are all corrupt.
Reed is a total phony. I had long assumed, as most people probably did, that he came up through the Christian Right, a conservative Christian who got into politics through religion. He sure does look the part, doesn't he? This, of course, is not true. He wasn't "born again" until 1983, long after he had committed himself to Republican politics and proved himself to be a ruthless, unprincipled operative. He helped to create the Christian Coalition, it didn't create him. In fact, the Christian Right doesn't really exist independently of the Party, it is a wholly owned subsidiary, consciously created and nurtured as a Republican voting block.
(Morton Blackwell famously gave the Moral Majority its name.) Ralph Reed is now entering electoral politics himself, making the big move. He's probably the most dangerous Republican in America.
Norquist, as most people know is a great admirer of Stalin's tactics. He's quoted as saying to Reed back in the College Republican days:
[Stalin] was running the personnel department while Trotsky was fighting the White Army. When push came to shove for control of the Soviet Union, Stalin won. Trotsky got an ice ax through his skull, while Stalin became head of the Soviet Union. He understood that personnel is policy.
To that end, Norquist more than anyone else has ensured through carefully constructed alliances that movement ideologues like himself peppered the Republican power structure to the extent that over time, they have come to define it. This is why people like John Bolton, who has no more business being a diplomat than the Rude Pundit does, have become mainstream Republicans, even though they are clearly radical. He has made sure that Republicans are interdependent on each other through money and influence and that the money and influence flow through him and his allies.
Norquist is the truest of true believers, but he understands the importance of certain other inducements to keep people in line. Tom DeLay and Norquist created the K Street project and it's been a rousing success. Abramoff and DeLay were the guys who offered those needed inducements when true belief and solidarity weren't enough. Delay wielded the hammer and Abramoff (among others) offered the goodies. This is how they hold the GOP majority together. Ask Nick Smith how that works.
It's not surprising that Abramoff is the weak link in this. He was the front man back in the college republican days, but he doesn't seem to have been a real strategist in the way that Reed, with his ruthless single mindedness was or Norquist with his long term Soviet style political vision. In fact, the strangest thing about Abramoff is his almost decade long movie producing career that resulted in only two movies being made --- Dolph Lundgren's "Red Scorpion" and "Red Scorpion II" --- both of which were co-produced by his brother, a successful show business attorney. This is an odd chapter in Abramoff's life. It's hard to know why he was unable to parlay himself a real career in Hollywood, except to wonder if maybe Hollywood, for all its faults, just isn't as easily bought off as his pals in the conservative movement. After all, these kind of perks are just standard in the Entertainment industry and can't buy you much of anything at all (from Foer's article in TNR):
Over time, Abramoff's media management grew more sophisticated, and he dispensed largesse across conservative journalism. His junkets didn't just comprise meetings and site visits, they also included plenty of recreation time. Trips to the Choctaw Reservation, for instance, featured gambling at the Silver Star resort and rounds on a lush new golf course. Clint Bolick recalls, "I left the trip early, because it seemed to be so much about golf and gambling, activities I'm not much into." As an artful Washington schmoozer, Abramoff would go even further that. One former Washington Times staffer told me that Abramoff's practice invited his family to watch the circus and a Bruce Springsteen concert from its box at the MCI Center. (By my count, six Washington Times editors and writers attended Abramoff trips.)
Abramoff came back to Washington when his pals came to power in 1994. They suddenly had it all; their triumphant public leader, Newt Gingrich, was even considering a run for the presidency in 1996. (The ever humble Newt was quoted as saying, "Am I going to have to get into this thing?") This was the time to put into place their plans for a permanent Republican establishment ("personnel is policy"), with the power of big money behind them. The problem is that Abramoff got greedy, and so did his little college republican friends. Both Norquist and Reed have been named in the various scandals, right along with Delay. Everybody seems to be hold their breath waiting to see if this thing takes down The Hammer, but the undercurrent of excitement is really whether it will render Norquist, Reed and others impotent over time as the scandal unfolds. It's possible. These guys have always had the problem of hubris and premature triumpalism. They operate on a very emotional level that is a weakness. And they are, of course, incredibly greedy.
Much of this information can be found in Nina Easton's fine book "The Gang of Five" which you should read if you are interested in learning about the relationship between the players in this DeLay/Abramoff scandal. She thought in 2000 that these guys had already overreached, but clearly she was ahead of herself. And it should be noted that even if all three go down, the momentum of the conservative movement will only slow, not reverse itself. Barring a very serious crisis, it's going to take a long time and a gargantuan effort to turn that ship around, if we can do it at all.
But if these guys are irreparably discredited as a result of their own arrogance and avarice, it will be the final nail, I believe, in the Nixon legacy. These are his political heirs, raised and nurtured on the mother's milk of corruption and dishonesty, scarred while very young by the ignominious downfall of their political father; driven to wreak revenge and recapture what they perceived as their rightful ownership of American politics. They are the spawn of Watergate resentment and this country will never be healthy until this group of radicals are removed from positions of power.
Watch this Abramoff scandal. It may go nowhere, but the potential for a lethal, if not mortal, wound to the conservative movement resides inside it.