Politics & Policy

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Why liberals need to make up their minds on Enron.

Enron’s collapse was bad. From what we know so far, what Enron’s executives did was very bad. Arthur Andersen screwed up. Shareholders and employees were screwed.

Congress should investigate — and they are. The attorney general should recuse himself — and he has. The Justice Department should investigate — and it is. The SEC should scramble their F-18s full of ace accountants. Their C-141 Starlifters should drop a whole division of their “Green Eyeshades,” elite auditors, over downtown Houston, armed with the latest slide rules and graphing calculators — and all of that that is happening as we speak. The Pope should damn Ken Lay to the 13th circle of Hell and voodoo priests should slaughter a chicken over a picture of the original Arthur Andersen — and for all I know, that’s in the works too.

Sorry if I’m getting a little hysterical, but it seems impossible to overstate anything these days so long as “Enron” is in the sentence. If I could figure out how to make Enron look bad by saying Pauly Shore is the greatest actor of the 20th century, some Joe Lieberman worshipper would nod in agreement.

That’s all fine, I guess. Depending on what the various investigations show, the appropriate parties have to take their medicine. This does seem to be a legitimate business scandal.

What is not fine, however, is the bizarre effort to make this a political scandal. Robert Scheer, the L.A. Times columnist famous for running through his entire arsenal of idiocy on the first day of the war, has already called Enron a “cancer on the presidency.” Salon and a few other outlets are already calling this “Enrongate.” Doesn’t something bad have to happen in the White House before you get the “-gate” suffix?

Get Your Stories Straight

Let’s recap. First, there’s Rep. Henry Waxman, who’s wanted to know why he can’t have a camera on him at all times. Not unrelated, he’s also wanted to know about the meetings Dick Cheney had with nefarious “corporate interests” while drafting an as yet unimplemented and un-voted-upon energy plan. Waxman believes — shockingly enough — that greedy captains of industry, specifically Enron CEO Ken Lay, were inappropriately influential on the plan’s recommendations. “As best as I can tell,” Waxman recently told the Los Angeles Times, “Ken Lay has had unlimited access to the . . . administration.” Cue scary Jaws music.

That’s fine, I guess (I think Cheney should release the info Waxman wants). But Waxman, aided by a war-weary and scandal-hungry media, wants people to think this has something to do with the collapse of Enron. “I’m afraid the Bush administration would like to downplay its intimate relationship with Ken Lay and Enron executives,” fretted Waxman. And on another occasion he lamented that “access provided to Enron far exceeded the access provided by the White House to other parties interested in energy policy.”

(Which is bad . . . why? I know a guy with open-toed shoes at the neighborhood coffeehouse who’s keenly interested in energy policy. Should he have gotten the same access as the leading energy seller in the country?)

Okay, whatever; maybe Enron did have “too much” access. But even if Dick Cheney was sitting there with a steno pad while Ken Lay dictated his diabolical plan to deregulate old ladies into the cold, cold gutters — this would have exactly zero to do with Enron’s collapse, because right now the plan has no more legal effect than my dry-cleaning ticket. If the secrecy of Cheney’s energy-plan meetings is a political scandal and if the Enron bankruptcy is a political scandal — two huge ifs — there’s still no reason to think they are the same political scandal.

Perhaps sensing this, or perhaps hoping to get his better side filmed, Waxman also wants to know why the White House didn’t help the guy to whom they granted “unlimited access.” “It is now clear,” Waxman thundered, “the White House had knowledge that Enron was likely to collapse but did nothing to try to protect innocent employees and shareholders who ultimately lost their life savings.”

So wait a second. Which is it? Is the Bush White House too accommodating of Enron or not accommodating enough? Simultaneously, the Bushies are greedy oilmen willing to do anything for their deep-pocketed Houston handlers — and they’re heartless for just saying no when Enron asked the administration for help. This is the newest twist on the Madonna-whore complex: They’re for sale but they don’t put out. In effect, the Democrats are at once accusing Bush of incest and denouncing him for not going all the way with his sister.

Yesterday, the Washington Post summed it up nicely: “Some Democratic lawmakers believe they can attack the White House coming and going: If anything was done to help a political intimate, Bush can be filleted for breaking his promise to restore honor and integrity to the White House. If nothing was done in response to the calls, some Democrats plan to argue the administration should have done something to protect shareholders and employees.”

Now, imagine — I know it’s hard — if Clinton screwed a major backer, say, Tyson Chicken, the way the Bushies stuck it to Enron. Jonathan Alter would nominate him for a “Profiles in Courage” award. If Clinton bent over backward, or forward, for a donor, he’d just claim that this just showed how we need campaign-finance reform — and again, Jonathan Alter would nominate him for a “Profiles in Courage” award. In fact, if Bill Clinton were to pass a quart of chocolate milk through his nose, Jonathan Alter would nominate him for a “Profiles in Courage” Award, so maybe that’s not the best example.

Attack of the “Reformers.”

Regardless, speaking of having it both ways, there’s another group that wants to whack the Enron piñata for their own cynical political agenda: the campaign-finance “reformers.” These folks don’t want so much to beat up Bush — though for many of them it’s delicious gravy — as to prove that the whole “system” is corrupt.

I’m talking, of course, about John McCain and the crowds of Democratic Senators who desperately want to be photographed alongside him. “This whole thing is tainted by the huge amounts of soft money that was washing around political campaigns, both Republicans and Democrats,” McCain explained on Face the Nation. “It taints all of us. It creates the impression that improprieties are — are — are being carried out because of the influence of these huge amounts of money. And it’s another compelling argument for campaign-finance reform.”

To be honest, I didn’t even know there were any compelling arguments for McCain’s “reform” proposals, so it comes as a shock that this Enron thing offers another one. In fact, to me, the great thing about the Enron collapse is how it so thoroughly debunks the campaign-finance-reform clichés.

According to McCain & co., campaign contributions are inherently corrupting. But they can never point to anyone, specifically, who’s actually been corrupted. That’s why, as Rich Lowry has long argued, McCain has to denounce the whole “system” as corrupt — without being able to give any examples of actual corruption. This is like bemoaning the baleful effects of tuna nets on dolphins without being able to produce Flipper’s corpse.

So now we have this parade of Democrats and/or reform-zealots — Lieberman, Schumer, Dingell — who swear that the money they received from Enron has zero effect on their behavior. When asked on Fox News Sunday if Enron’s generosity influenced him, John Dingell replied: “Well, Enron talks to everybody. And I’ve told them ‘no’ at almost everything they’ve said.” When Lieberman was asked, on Face the Nation, a similar question about money he got from Enron’s PAC, he replied, “I don’t feel at all compromised by it. And I guess I’d say to folks, ‘Watch the investigation we conduct.’ I intend it to be very aggressive, very comprehensive and — and very fair, and it’s going to be a — nonpartisan as much as I — I can.” And so on, and so on.

In fact, all of these people, I promise, will at some point have to say or prove that they aren’t in Enron’s pocket (see, again, Byron York’s extensive coverage).

And that doesn’t even include the soft money given to both Democrats and Republicans — or the cozy relationship Enron had with the Clinton administration (see David Brooks’s assessment).

And yet, the #7 company on the Fortune 500 managed to croak without a single member of the “bought and paid for” political class — other than Robert Rubin — running over with a defibrillator. Interesting. Yes, provocative. (As they say in the movie Tommy Boy.)

All — and I mean all — of the cliches of campaign-finance reform have been debunked by this thing. In fact, if you believe — as Henry Waxman seems to, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays — that “allowing” the collapse of Enron was a mistake, then the blame could just as rationally be put on the reformers themselves. These jabbering bandersnatches have, it could be argued, created a climate in which the “appearance” of a conflict is such a horrible crime that it might have prevented the Bush administration from actually doing the right thing.

Another irony: All of these people now asking if Enron’s donations are going to make it easier for them have it exactly backward. Every single politician who took a dime from Enron is now going to have be extra hard on the company — not extra easy. “I think the Republicans are going to have to jump on Enron to prove that they are not part of the Enron cabal,” as an unidentified lobbyist explained to the L.A. Times. “It’s going to be worse than it would be if they never had the influence.”

That’s the real conflict of interest.


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