When the Jack Abramoff scandal first broke, the main Republican line of defense was to construe the problem as narrowly as possible. GOP Representative Bob Ney, who now faces likely prosecution for accepting travel, gifts, and campaign cash in exchange for doing Abramoff's bidding, attempted to denounce Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon, as "two nefarious individuals." The message was that, somehow, a couple of bad apples had managed to find their way into the corridors of power in Washington, but they would be prosecuted, and life would go on.
As the scandal has deepened, this excuse has become difficult to sustain. And so Republicans have retreated to a second line of defense—namely, construing the scandal as broadly as possible. The problem shouldn't be confined to those members of Congress and staffers with whom Abramoff had a close relationship. It should be expanded to include everybody who received money from anyone who ever dealt with Abramoff. Suddenly, what do you know: It's a bipartisan scandal! As President Bush put it last month, Abramoff "was an equal money dispenser. ... [H]e was giving money to people in both political parties."
Unfortunately, this second line of defense has taken root in the news media, which is always eager, in the spirit of evenhandedness, to attribute equal blame for any problem to both parties. A couple of examples provide the flavor of such coverage. The Washington Post reported last month that, while "Democrats are hoping to capitalize on Republican ethical woes," prominent Democrats "were among beneficiaries of the largest campaign contributions from Abramoff's associates and clients." Dan Abrams of MSNBC asked, "It does seem most of his connections were to Republicans, but there are some Democrats who've had connections with him as well, right?"
The hilarity of this is that, before he became a figure of disgrace, nobody who knew the faintest thing about Abramoff wondered about his partisan affiliation. Abramoff came into politics alongside GOP operatives like Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist in the College Republicans, and he shared their total- war mentality. ("It is not our job to seek peaceful co-existence with the Left, " he once said. "Our job is to remove them from power permanently.") He raised more than $100,000 for Bush's reelection, making him a "pioneer," and he earned a position on Bush's transition team after the 2000 election. If Abramoff's small number of dealings with Democrats qualify him as bipartisan, then nobody is partisan.
How has Abramoff, in his political death, earned a reputation as a healer of the partisan rift that he worked so hard to deepen during his political life? There are two main conceptual errors at work in the current news coverage. The first involves lumping all Abramoff connections into the same category. Abramoff's clients made many campaign donations to many members of Congress from both parties, but this isn't really the issue. Most of these donations are scandalous only to the degree that any political donations are scandalous. No, the real issue is which members received donations from Abramoff's clients at his behest or accepted direct personal benefits—including lavish trips or make- work jobs for their wives—from him. This list is almost entirely Republican.
The second, and larger, conceptual error has been a failure to place Abramoff within the context of the Republican Party's takeover of K Street. The GOP domestic agenda has evolved to the point where it is almost completely indistinguishable from the accumulated whims of its funding base. Republicans explicitly wanted to destroy the old bipartisan arrangement, whereby lobbies cultivated ties with both parties, and replace it with one in which lobbies gave their exclusive loyalty to Republicans. GOP leaders called this effort the "K Street Project," and they cajoled and threatened lobbying firms to hire and donate only to them. Abramoff was the poster boy for the new breed of lobbyist/ activist, loyal to his clients and his party. (Of course, in reality, it turned out Abramoff was loyal only to himself.) The implicit, and sometimes explicit, terms of this arrangement held that the riches lobbyists bestowed upon Republicans would be returned manifold in the form of favorable legislation. As a result of the success of the K Street Project, the lines separating lobbyists from GOP leadership all but disappeared. Abramoff thrived precisely because he recognized something that the Washington press corps still seems unable to: that the Republican Party's alliance with K Street made it deeply and thoroughly corruptible.
This article appeared in the January 23, 2006, issue of the magazine.