Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America . His next book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, will be released in the spring by John Wiley & Sons.
As each week brings a newly disgraced Republican official, the GOP wields the best talking point it can come up with: Everybody does it! Sure, Washington is a fetid sewer of corruption, but it isn't just us. Forget about Duke Cunningham's yacht, Bob Ney's golf trips, Tom DeLay's alleged money laundering, the arrest of White House procurement chief David Safavian, or Bill Frist's timely stock sales from his not-so-blind trust. Democrats are just as guilty.
The Beltway journalistic establishment has been happy to second this assertion. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza produced a list of recent scandals—but in order to avoid weighting things too much toward Republicans, pulled out the case of Frank Balance (you're not alone if you've never heard of him), a one-term Democrat who resigned because of some alleged embezzlement that took place a decade before he got to Congress. "Pollsters say that voters think less of both political parties the more prominent the issue of corruption in Washington becomes," wrote Cillizza's Post colleague Jeffrey Birnbaum last week. "No fewer than seven lawmakers, including a Democrat, have been indicted, have pleaded guilty or are under investigation for improper conduct." Didya get that, a Democrat! Wondering who the other six were? Birnbaum doesn't bother to say—maybe they were members of the Natural Law Party.
On "Hardball," Chris Matthews held a discussion between Washington Times editor and former Newt Gingrich aide Tony Blankley, and Newsweek's Howard Fineman, who looks at President Bush the way an 11-year-old girl looks at Justin Timberlake. "Tony, I think it's fair to say," said Matthews, not trying to lead his guest on, "that stinky-poo corruption, the stealing the money, just stealing the money for greed reasons—is fairly nonpartisan." Stinky-poo punditry, on the other hand...well, the less said about that, the better.
We see here what we might call the Broder Backhand, named for the Dean of D.C. Reporters, the Washington Post's David Broder, who declares on a weekly basis that the American public is sick and tired of both parties. The Broder Backhand says that if Republicans are guilty of something, then Democrats must be guilty of it too, in precisely equal measure.
By the logic of the Broder Backhand, no lamentable state of affairs in American politics can be solely or even mostly the Republicans' fault. One side lies about a presidential candidate's war record and impugns his patriotism? Then both sides are engaging in shameful negative attacks. One side marches its party to extremes of wingnuttery not seen since the Goldwater days? Then politics is becoming terribly polarized, and where, oh where, is the sensible center?
This is not to say that Democrats have never sinned against Republicans or never raise a hand to fight back. But the scales of bad behavior are so dramatically unbalanced in the GOP direction that to make both parties out to be equally guilty requires nothing short of willful dishonesty.
Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Republican rule since 1994 has been their brazenness, their willingness to take things a step farther than anyone had ever contemplated. When Majority Leader Bill Frist went to South Dakota to campaign against Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle in 2004, he wasn't violating a written rule—just the courtesy every party leader had offered his counterpart in the past. When Tom DeLay engineered a reredistricting in Texas to draw congressional district lines more to his liking, it was something no one had ever had the audacity to do before. (And it may also have been illegal: we learned Friday from The Washington Post that Justice Department lawyers had determined that the Texas redistricting violated the Voting Rights Act, but they were overruled by political appointees. The same happened in the case of Georgia's new voter ID law, which institutes what is, for all intents and purposes, a poll tax.)
The most basic fact of life in Washington today is that Republicans control everything, so Democrats couldn't become particularly corrupt even if they wanted to. As Josh Marshall put it, "Democrats in Washington today just aren't in a position to be corrupt on any serious scale for a simple reason: Public corruption is almost always about selling power. Got no power and you've just got nothing to sell." It makes for easy, Bruce Morton-style historical comparisons for a journalist to say that even if they're the ones in the dock now, Republicans are just doing what Democrats did when they held Congress for decades. But in fact, the so-called scandals of the Democratic years were nothing like what Republicans have managed to accomplish.
There were certainly individual cases of corruption among Democrats during the years they ran Congress—Jim Wright encouraging supporters to buy thousands of copies of his book, or Dan Rostenkowski filling no-show jobs in his office with relatives of friends (an old Chicago tradition, of course).
But you could pile up all the congressional scandals from the four decades Democrats were in charge, and the result would be roughly equal in scale to what we've learned about Republicans in the last six months alone. And if Jack Abramoff decides to cooperate with the team of prosecutors now examining the tentacles of his influence, an entire new bureaucracy within the Justice Department may have to be created just to process the indictments. Abramoff wasn't some kind of loose cannon; he was nurtured in the heart of the Republican establishment. A veteran of the College Republicans, friends (or co-conspirators, depending on the outcome of the investigation) with the likes of Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed and Tom DeLay, Abramoff stands not as an aberration within Republican Washington, but its very embodiment.
So the real difference is not in the scale of Republican corruption but in its character. As juicy as it is, Duke Cunningham's case actually stands apart from the rest of the Republican ethics scandals. What is unusual about the Cunningham case is that it was so old-school. A luxury house, a yacht, a Rolls-Royce, all procured with the help of a friendly defense contractor in the bizarre belief that no one would notice.
The kind of corruption one sees within the Republican power structure, in contrast, has been institutionalized. Entire organizations have been established for no purpose other than serving as conduits for the circular flow of money and influence. Through the "K Street Project," detailed two years ago by Nicholas Confessore in the Washington Monthly, Republicans in Congress tell lobbying firms whom they can and cannot hire, and strong-arm them into becoming little more than an arm of the Republican Party. "The corporate lobbyists who once ran the show, loyal only to the parochial interests of their employer, are being replaced by party activists who are loyal first and foremost to the GOP," Confessore wrote.
Democrats have taken to describing Republican rule as a "culture of corruption." But in truth it is less a culture of corruption than an infrastructure of corruption. Corruption has been systematized. A few Democrats in years past may have become corrupt, but today's Republicans made a conscious decision almost from the moment they took power to trade access and legislative favors for campaign contributions and political support to a degree never seen before, and created a smoothly humming machine to keep the system going.
Contrary to what many people may think, you can't buy a congressman's vote on abortion or gun control. But you might be able to get him to slip in a narrowly tailored provision into a tax bill that will benefit your company. It will be buried with a few hundred other such provisions, and no reporter will ever write a story about it. Your investment of a few thousand dollars—or a few hundred thousand—can return to you a hundred or a thousand fold. Tom DeLay didn't come to Congress burning with a desire to make sure Mariana Islands sweatshops (some using virtual slave labor) could label their clothes "Made in the USA." But after a trip organized by Jack Abramoff (with some time fit in for golf and snorkeling), he was only too happy to help. (Abramoff's efforts on behalf of the Marianas are ensnaring more than one Republican lawmaker; a Montana paper reported over the weekend that Sen. Conrad Burns suddenly began opposing a bill heightening oversight of the Marianas after an official of one of the island's garment manufacturers made a $5,000 contribution to Burns' PAC.)
As one indictment after another is handed down and more lawmakers see their names mentioned in stories with the name "Abramoff" in the title, we are told by Republicans and their friends in the press that everyone does it—move along, nothing to see here. But one would have to believe the public to be pretty dim to think they'll buy that line. When you control the entire government, you can do a lot to advance your agenda. But you also find that when the stench of corrupt rule begins to waft out of Washington, people know whom to blame.