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long, droning, rambling entry with discursive but not altogether illustrative meanders, all about keeping to the point

For the casual reader of Left Blogovia (or, indeed, the causal one, I suppose), it’s become easy to now perceive the scandal about Jack Abramoff, bribery, embezzlement, murder, organized crime, casinos and the Legislature as being, ultimately, not about what happened, nor who was taking bribes, nor who knew that bribes were being spread around but continued to deal with Mr. Abramoff and his associates, nor even about whether Mr. Abramoff was or was not connected to Democratic legislators, nor yet about whether the press are reporting accurately whether Mr. Abramoff was or was not connected to Democratic legislators, nor yet even whether the press, having printed some misinformation about the extent to which Mr. Abramoff was connected to Democratic legislators, did so inadvertently or deliberately, but whether, after being criticized for printing misinformation about the extent of Mr. Abramoff’s connection to Democratic legislators, the Washington Post over-reacted sincerely, if misguidedly, or were marching to a different drummer altogether.

Keep your eye on the ball, boys.

A few days ago, Norman Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann placed in the New York Times an op-ed piece called If You Give a Congressman a Cookie. In it, they attempt to guide readers from the superficially flashy Abramoff scandal to the not-totally-unrelated matter of the Republican Party’s betrayal of the norms of Congressional behavior. I was glad to see it, not least because I find the outrageous behavior of the Republican leadership on the House floor to be more arresting than the murder and millions of the corrupt lobbyist. They say that “If you can play fast and loose with the rules of the game in lawmaking, it becomes easier to consider playing fast and loose with everything else, including relations with lobbyists, acceptance of favors, the use of official resources and the discharge of governmental power”. I don’t think that goes far enough, and I think it shows an unduly institution-based filter in their perception.

Frankly, to me it’s more about the people. The same people who acted dishonestly in the Medicare Prescription Drug fiasco acted dishonestly in the Abramoff crimes. It should not be surprising that people who negotiate dishonestly with the opposition Party, that people who campaign dishonestly for votes and suppress voting for the opposition, that people who legislatively loot the treasury of the country to put into the pockets of their friends (and often their erstwhile and future business partners) also take bribes. Changing the rules about bribe-taking, or even changing the norms in Our House, will not work as well as getting rid of the dishonest people. Not that you will get honest people in their places, of course. Well, some of them will be honest, more or less, but sure, some of the replacements will be bad ’uns, too, perhaps even to the astonishing level of venality we are currently seeing, but then who said being a democrat was easy?

Digression: For some reason, the scale of these bribes is what outrages me. Oh, sure, I understand that organizations with business in front of the Senate will hire the relatives and friends of Senators in order to curry favor, and it wouldn’t shock me if a Kennedy or two had said to somebody that there was a nephew or an aide or a mistress who would be just perfect for that job that happened to be open. That sort of thing happens all the time, and doesn’t strike me as a sign that the politician in question in particularly dishonest or venal. On the other hand, telling such an organization that it would be a good idea to hire a particular lobbying company for a hundred thousand bucks, said company employing two or three former aides, wives and business partners, and implicitly the legislator himself, well, I understand that the difference is in scale, not in kind, but whoo-boy, it seems like a whole nother deal. End Digression.

It seems relevant to repeat the two antithetical joke-definitions of an honest politician. The old British joke is that an honest politician is one who stays bought, that is, one who can be expected to always vote in the interests of his true constituency, whoever that is. For some, the buying will be cash (or, like Sen. McCain, luxury trips for him and family), and for some, the buying will be (as James Madison intended) continued political support (as for politicians owned by labor, by religious groups, by business interests, by regional interests, etcetera, etcetera). There’s a good deal to be said for predictability, and Your Humble Blogger has certainly said a great deal for it, and will do so again, later. But there’s the other definition, the Texas one, that says that an honest politician is one who can shake their hands, take their money, smoke their cigars, drink their whiskey, fuck their wives, and then vote the other way. It ain’t predictable, but there’s a good deal to be said for that, too.

What I think, I suppose, is that (i) most politicians are, at heart, honest enough, although their position requires them to make compromises that most of us find repugnant and also makes unethical activities that most of us find routine, and (b) there are dishonest politicians, who use their position to increase their own wealth and power and that of their friends, and (3) it’s more difficult to tell the difference between the two than you might think. Further, I don’t think that a number of dishonest politicians (by any definition, judicial or jocular) do much to make the difference between good and bad government. However, when dishonest politicians are in charge of the majority Party, when they are unrestrained by political opposition or their own rank and file, when they can loot and cheat with impunity, then whatever you think of their Party’s platform, those people must go.

Once upon a time, the Democratic Speaker of the House took some money from supporters via a sweetheart book deal, and his wife took a $18,000 sinecure, and we ditched him and he was never heard from again. He was, by the way, a real Texas politician, not that other kind.

Your Humble Blogger has been saying for some time that Our Only President has betrayed rank and file Republicans and other Conservatives far more than he has betrayed people like me. I have not, on the whole, been saying that of the legislative leadership. That was an oversight. Really, though, it’s clear that Tom DeLay and his associates (including mentors Dick Cheney and Dick Armey, Grover Norquist, Rick Santorum, the ARMPAC folk, the K Street project lobbyists including Jack Abramoff, TRMPAC and the Texas folk there including Rick Perry) as well as Denny Hastert under whose watch all this occurred, need to answer to Republican Party members. Oh, I am still being shocked (again, by the scale more than anything else), but then they are not claiming to be my leaders. And, of course, whatever the moral and ethical rights and wrongs, it seems clear to me that purely as a political matter, my Party should be emphasizing how the Republican leadership have failed their followers.

Can we get on that, please? And please, Senator Reid, Representative Pelosi, don’t take Left Blogovia seriously enough to ignore our tendencies to obsession over detail. Blogovia is good at detail. Without obsession over detail and a total lack of perspective, we wouldn’t have Fisking. And, Senator, Representative, your actual job, legislating, if the governing Party would let you do it, is all about detail, and I appreciate that. But thirty posts on one topic in the L. B. usually means we’ve lost the plot, and you can ignore us until we remember what’s really going on.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


I like PJ O'Rourke's quote about this: "Politics is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit. A politician is anyone who asks individuals to surrender part of their liberty— their power and privilege— to State, Masses, Mankind, Planet Earth, or whatever. This state, those masses, that mankind, and the planet will then be run by ... politicians."

Honest or dishonest, politicians are in a fundamentally corrupt business. :^(

Incidentally, today's Non Sequitur makes a somewhat similar point to your fourth paragraph here.

The problem with Mr. O'Rourke's definition is that it's both tautological and inaccurate. For instance, the heads of Coke and Wal-Mart and BofA ask you to surrender part of your liberty to The Market, which will then be run by politicians only if you count those heads as politicians by virtue of the definition itself.
Still, the point that governance is a fundamentally corrupt business is well taken. Perhaps that's why I feel so strongly about having the right people in it, since it is not a fundamentally corrupt business we can do without.

I have two possible disagreements with you here.

One probably has more to do with something personal to me than with what you're talking about, but I think it's worth mentioning anyway: I disagree with the notion that if someone behaves dishonestly in one context, it means they Are Dishonest and can be assumed to have behaved 100% dishonestly in all other contexts. (The personal side of this is that I know people who apply it in daily life--"Person X said they did Y at some point in the past, but my memory is that they instead did Z; therefore, probably everything they've ever said is a total lie, and they're probably committing fraud on a massive scale in an attempt to ruin my life." This argument makes me tense and distressed, but I can't go into more detail about this with violating privacy.) You start to get at this with your paragraph (which I largely agree with) about the difficulty of telling the difference between honest and dishonest politicians, but it seems to me that you still come down on the side of believing that there's such a thing as a Dishonest Politician, who is in all ways dishonest, and that we can tell who those are by the fact they've been indicted. Maybe I'm being naive, but I don't really buy that.

The indictment thing brings me to my second concern, something you and I briefly discussed in email a while back but I forgot to follow up on at the time: the innocent-until-proven-guilty thing. It's true that an indictment suggests, in general, a greater likelihood of guilt than just being arrested, but my understanding is that people have in the past been indicted and yet subsequently cleared of all wrongdoing. It therefore bugs me when Pelosi and others immediately jump up and start screaming about how the DeLay indictment makes clear that the entire Republican party is the most thoroughly corrupt political group ever to exist on the face of the planet. It's vicious attack politics, and I don't care who's doing it, it bugs me. I realize that your approach to this is not the same as Pelosi's; I'd rather have you in charge of managing this message than her. But still, it makes me concerned about the suggestion that we should urge her on to further attacks.

As usual, disagreement compels me to clarify my ideas, which is always a good thing. I think there are still areas of disagreement, but some apparent areas are the result not of actual conflict of principles or conclusions, but of my logorrhea.

Your first point, particularly, is well-stated and well-taken. People are not, on the whole, Dishonest or Honest, but come all mixed-up. Moses hit the rock, and Hitler, I don’t know, painted landscapes. Assuming painting landscapes isn’t Eeeevil. Dunno.

This is a fundamental idea of the Democratic Party, this idea that what distinguishes the Criminal from the Decent Citizen is not fundamental ontological status but the actual commission of a crime. It’s a good idea to keep it in mind when thinking about career politicians as well, because if you don’t, it’s hardly possible to think about them at all. In my experience (mostly from reading, but also from actually meeting people), most career politicians went into politics originally out of a desire to serve the Public Good, as they defined it, and stayed in politics from that same desire. Most, if not all, committed acts with which they were not altogether comfortable, but which they justified to themselves by some version of the Greater Good criterion. This includes, for instance, Richard Nixon, who appears to have genuinely believed, at least briefly, that it was OK to fix a presidential election because if a Democrat was in the White House, the Communists would take over the world, and there were some things that were just too important to leave to chance.

Now, having said that, I do think there is such a thing as a Dishonest Politician, although unlike the Knaves who always lie, Dishonest Politicians are perfectly capable of telling the truth, governing decently, and behaving ethically in certain situations. That doesn’t mean that you should trust that Dishonest Politician. Frankly, if Dick Cheney told me the sun was shining, I’d bring an umbrella. There isn’t any reason to believe that he will negotiate in good faith, tell the truth, or attempt to do anything for the Public Good, rather than out of greed, cronyism, and lust for power. I’m not saying he never does anything from good motives, I’m just saying that I’d play the odds. In our current case, I think it’s clear from the actions of Tom DeLay and his associates that their primary motivation is not the public good, at least not often enough to wager on.

As to your second point, I agree that it is morally incumbent on us to differentiate between unproved allegations, even those which have enough evidence to convince a Grand Jury to indict, and admitted fact, whether bragged about (such as the K Street Project shenanigans) or encompassed in a guilty plea (such as much of the Abramoff scandal as well as a good deal of Tom DeLay’s scandalous history) or simply agreed upon by all the actors (such as a good deal of the not-technically-illegal not-technical-bribery I call cronyism) or observed and entered into the historical record (such as the degradation and destruction of the Parliamentary norms that Democrats had thought were reciprocal).

Should Rep. Pelosi take the indictment of a White House Staffer and the House Majority Leader, as well as of several associates of the Republican Congressional leadership, as proof of the corruption of the Party? No. Should she take the undisputed aspects of those indictments, the stuff that the investigators have discovered and that is now in the public record as evidence of that corruption? Yes. Is she sloppy about her terms? Yes. Is she still, fundamentally, correct that even if acquitted on the specific charges, that is, even if it is found that the disputed allegations are false (or at least unproven), and that the undisputed actions that are alleged to be crimes are not criminal, there is now plenty of evidence that the Republican Party has deliberately, using the organizational structure and resources, created a culture of corruption, that ought to shock and appall all Americans, particularly Republicans? Yes.

Is the current Republican Party, that is, the Party of the K Street Project, circa 1994 to the present, spectacularly and unusually corrupt in either an historical or global perspective? No. Is it far, far, far more corrupt than the Democratic Party of the late 70s and 80s, circa AbScam and the Keating Five? Yes. Is our country in substantial danger by allowing this corrupt Party to continue to rob our treasury, corrupt our legislative and executive processes, appoint and confirm lifetime appointments to the federal bench, and set horrific precedents in all facets of the government? Yes. Should our Party, in stopping them, resort to either dishonesty or deception in pretending that what is alleged is in fact proved? No. Nor is it necessary. There is enough proved against this party without it.

I do think there is such a thing as a Dishonest Politician, although unlike the Knaves who always lie, Dishonest Politicians are perfectly capable of telling the truth, governing decently, and behaving ethically in certain situations. That doesn’t mean that you should trust that Dishonest Politician.

I think this statement gives the Dishonest Politician too much credit. I would aver that in order to govern decently (in both meanings of the word), a politician must have a regard for the truth. The Republican leadership has amply demonstrated that they have no regard for the truth, and I don't believe they could govern decently, even if they were inclined to do so.

Hmmm. Perhaps another qualification: Not all Dishonest Politicians, dishonest in the sense that they are in it for the money, are incapable of governing decently. An office-holder who takes kickbacks, bribes and favors may well also write good laws.
I don't think that Tom DeLay and his associates in the House, Senate and Executive necessarily fall into that category. I suspect that they themselves would be incapable of governing decently without making substantial character changes, changes not only in their priorities and values but in their perceptions of the universe.
Of course, there are also (more-or-less) Honest Politicians who can't govern well, for a variety of reasons. I would throw out this bunch for governing badly even if they weren't swindlers.

i don't really think it's a good idea to trust anybody who has the legal authority to back out of a promise.

* by legal authority i mean, (1) "i can change the law" (b) "you are but a squirrel to the mack truck of my legal team" (iii) "i am acting under a prior binding arrangement to smile and nod while you talk"

True enough, although if somebody with legal authority to dick you over and laugh* actually fulfills most promises over a long period of time, that would be different from, say, Our Only President.


*Under the Alito doctrine, people with legal authority to dick you over and laugh include, but are not limited to, elected officials, unelected appointees of elected officials, friends and relatives of unelected appointees of elected officials, the secret police, the Double-Sekrit police, the police that are so secret that even the Double-Sekrit police don't know about them, your employer, your employer's business associates, your employer's private police force, your employer's business associates' private police forces, the Secret Business Police, and Ned Colletti.

we are equal before the law. it's just that here, here, here, and here it says i'm better than you. oh yeah i guess that was too fast for you to see it. one more time: hereherehereandhere. see? now scram or you go on the Mystery Sh!t List for ever and ever.

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