Absolute Power Corrupts...

Publish Date: 
Monday, September 12, 2005

In recent months it has become clear that the conservatives who run Washington have failed to deliver on the basic responsibilities of governing – creating broad-based prosperity, managing our finances, keeping us safe and meeting new challenges as they arise. Over the past several days, a wave of arrests, investigations and indictments have also illustrated the degree to which these conservatives have become corrupted by their almost unchecked power, taking actions that have tarnished our democracy and will certainly send several conservative leaders out of government, if not to jail.

Let's review what we know:

  • Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist is under investigation by federal authorities for insider trading.
  • Several of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's top aides and his PAC have been indicted.
  • Last week, David Safavian, a senior administration official responsible for overseeing $300 billion in government contracts, was arrested.
  • Karl Rove and Vice-President Cheney’s top aide, Scooter Libby, are the main targets of a federal probe looking into the premature exposure of an undercover CIA agent.
  • Also recently arrested was conservative uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a close ally of Tom DeLay, the Republican leadership and Karl Rove, and business associate of conservative stalwarts Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. It was Safavian’s efforts to block the Abramoff investigation that resulted in his arrest. And it has become clear that the case will likely involve many others, including Rove and other members of Congress.

More is spilling out each day. In today's New York Times, the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security observes that the administration’s current approach to rebuilding the Gulf Coast left their efforts vulnerable to “fraud, plain waste, abuse and mismanagement," noting that “We are very apprehensive about what we are seeing." It is surely no coincidence that these efforts were being coordinated by none other than Karl Rove and the recently arrested David Safavian.

Things are moving quickly and these various threads are likely to evolve into one of the biggest political scandals – or series of scandals – in American history. They involve money, abuse of power, conspiracy and coordination, obstruction of justice, fraud and traditional political skullduggery. But what makes these scandals so remarkable is that they involve not just a single branch of government but the leadership of an entire political movement.

Frist, DeLay, Rove, Norquist, Abramoff, Reed. These are the masterminds of the conservative ascendancy of recent years, the leaders of this modern day Tammany Hall. They’ve built and run the formidable political machine that has triumphed over Democrats and given Republicans more power today than at any time since the 1920s. They run Washington. And as all these emerging stories tell us, they also let it go to their heads and crossed the line, becoming arrogant and corrupted by the power they so skillfully acquired.

Perhaps The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson put it best. Writing on the tenth anniversary of a publication that has long been one of the intellectual organs of the conservative movement, he decried the corruption that has tainted modern conservatism, explaining "The current story of Jack Abramoff's lucrative self-dealing, involving as it does such movement stalwarts as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, may seem lunatic in its excesses, but . . . [t]he point is the ease with which the stalwarts commandeered the greasy machinery of Washington power. Conservative activists came to Washington to do good and stayed to do well."

The narrative that Ferguson so aptly described is nothing new. History tells us that while power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And what the conservatives have today is near absolute power. After spending much of the twentieth century in the political wilderness, nurturing their radical ideologies free from the practical constraints of actually governing, the immature conservative leadership has quickly succumbed to the temptations of unchecked power.

Anticipating the inevitable, members of Congress in both parties must act decisively to show that our government does not condone this behavior. In our recent Brownie memo, we discussed what must be done at a policy level to clean up the conservatives' governing mess. Given the sad spectacle of the sham "investigation" into Katrina that begins tomorrow, we should not have great faith that this Congress can responsibly look into the misdeeds of its own party. But if it were serious, Congress could take two actions right now, this week, to show it means business.

First, reject the appointment of Timothy Flanigan for Deputy Attorney General. At this sensitive time, a new number two at the Department of Justice must be beyond reproach. Flanigan is anything but. He is a conservative movement lawyer, former White House lawyer, and currently the General Counsel of Tyco Corporation. While he was at Tyco the corporation engaged Abramoff to lobby Congress and the White House; yes, this is the same Tyco that just had two former executives convicted in one of the largest corporate scandals on record. The aggressive White House defense of Flanigan sure makes it look like he is being picked precisely to do what he can from the inside to protect the many under investigation.

Second, Senator John McCain should expand his hearings into these spreading scandals. McCain and his team held a series of revealing hearings earlier this year, but stopped short of real results. It is time for a man with the integrity and probity of Senator McCain to take on this important task and begin cleaning up the mess his party has created.

More of course must be done. But Congress should start with these simple first steps. The jig, my friends, is up – history, the American people, and perhaps the law, will not be kind to those who sought to protect the leaders of our modern day Tammany Hall.