Politics & Policy

It Takes Two to Tango

Fat-cat truths.

Republicans have been caught playing to their stereotype of late. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been indicted by a Texas grand jury for a criminal conspiracy to circumvent campaign-finance laws, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is under investigation by the SEC and the Department of Justice on allegations of insider trading.

If I had to bet, the indictment against Tom DeLay won’t stick–not because DeLay is any sort of angel but because the indictment is flimsy on its face. But we’ll see. Similarly, I doubt that Bill Frist is in any serious legal trouble for his alleged insider trading. Political trouble is another matter entirely for the tin-eared heart surgeon seeking the Oval Office.

Combine this with the years-long campaign to vilify Dick Cheney and George Bush as shady oilmen, Halliburton as the World Headquarters of Evil, and the GOP-controlled Congress as an ATM machine for oleaginous K Street flimflammers like Jack Abramoff, and one could argue without much fear of contradiction that the Republicans have the makings of an image problem. Except for the case against Abramoff–who really appears to be a brigand who swims with a knife in his teeth–I think most of these charges are lacking in seriousness. But that doesn’t change the political reality.

Democrats will tell you that Republicans are merely living up to their principles. This is simply who Republicans are. If you don’t want Congress to be run by lickspittles to corporate paymasters, don’t vote Republican. Democrats don’t roll over for corporations, they bring them to heel.

While I’d hardly like to be in the position of defending every pork-besotted appropriator and machine-hack in the GOP, I really don’t think it’s that simple.

There’s an ancient cliché in Washington that the real crime isn’t what’s illegal but what’s legal. Campaign-finance “reform” is usually the most fertile soil for this cliché. Politicians complain that focusing on enforcement of existing laws misses the “big picture.” The whole “system” is corrupt.

And they are largely correct. Not just on campaign finance, but in terms of corporate involvement in politics across the board. The problem is that liberals and others wearing the “reformer” label consistently offer the wrong remedy for the right diagnosis. They want more regulation, more oversight, more government. This has it backwards.

If you think someone is hugging you too hard, what do you do? You push him away. You don’t hug him back. And yet, it is considered the height of enlightened policymaking to say that, in answer to corporate America’s bear hug, Washington should hug back twice as hard.

If you want to know why business takes such an interest in Washington, the answer can be found in your low-flow toilet, in the warning labels adorning your cars, in your 8 zillion page tax returns. It can be found while you wait on hold trying to get a human to answer your questions about your health insurance. And the answer is most certainly somewhere in your box of cereal, made with grains subsidized by Uncle Sam and coated in sugar that has no business being grown in the United States of America. Corporations meddle in Washington because Washington meddles with them.

It is simply naive to believe that a businessman will have no interest in politics when politicians have taken a great interest in him. And it is grotesquely unfair to assume that businesspeople are corrupt simply because they want to support politicians less inclined to hurt them.

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates used to brag that he barely spent a dime on lobbying–”I live in the other Washington,” he liked to say. But the very moment that government–federal and state–tried to tear apart his company, Gates abandoned his view that the New Economy could ignore the Old Politics. Now D.C. is awash in Microsoft lobbyists. Wal-Mart is only now learning the same lesson. If you don’t get in the game, you might be regulated out of it.

Of course, not all businesses that support politicians of either party are doing it out of self-protection. Some are merely rent-seeking opportunists. Some are both. Sugar growers, for example, have ripped off taxpayers and consumers to the tune of billions. If government stopped protecting the industry from competition, it would mostly disappear and stop gouging us at the same time.

Liberals think Republicans are living up to their principles when they get cozy with fat cats. The reality is that Republicans betray their principles when they give fat cats a reason to come to Washington to begin with.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services

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