A beginner's guide to the political scandal.
11:00 PM, Jan 31, 2006 • By DAN MCLAUGHLIN
LAST YEAR was a rough one for the GOP and the Bush administration, and from what we've seen so far, 2006 promises no fewer obstacles and controversies. One of the biggest--indeed, the centerpiece of Congressional Democrats' electoral strategy--will be scandal.
Democrats are rejoicing at the turnabout from the Clinton years, just as Republicans rejoiced when President Clinton became the target of many of the very same weapons--independent counsels, sexual harassment charges--deployed with great effect against Republicans and conservatives in the prior two administrations. To younger activists, the time is ripe for high dudgeon. To veterans of the process, the stories are too familiar, and only the names are new. Scandals, after all, are as old as Washington, even older, and to observers of national politics, they tend to settle themselves into familiar patterns.
Not all scandals are the same, of course. And some types of scandal are--properly--more serious and damaging to public officials than others. But a rough attempt at taxonomy reveals that there are 10 basic types of Washington scandals.
(1) The Vice Scandal: It's the media's favorite--drugs, sex, gambling, and once in a while even violence, whatever titillates, though it has no direct connection to the actual business of governing. Monica Lewinsky is the most famous of these, but Vice Scandals have long been a staple of D.C. politics: Chappaquiddick, Wilbur Mills, Gary Hart.
The arguments for why the Vice Scandal is relevant--not just entertaining and embarrassing--vary. If it's a high government official, opponents argue that the scandalous behavior shows that he or she has bad judgment or bad morals and can't be trusted with important responsibilities. If the target is involved in enforcing the law, opponents argue that you can't enforce a law you can't obey. If the target is a prominent spokesman on moral issues, the air fills with cries of hypocrisy.
The defense against a Vice Scandal is either to argue that it has nothing to do with the ability to govern or to retreat from public life and return after a spell proclaiming redemption (preferably with the involvement of Larry King). Either way, in our modern age, the Vice Scandal has proven surprisingly easy to survive.
Since the 2000 election, the Bush administration has been remarkably free of Vice Scandals, unless you count the president's daughters getting busted for underage drinking. Other elected Republicans have fared a bit worse, including South Dakota Congressman Bill Janklow (vehicular manslaughter) and Illinois Senate candidate Jack Ryan (taking his ex-wife to sex clubs), while California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger famously weathered allegations of groping a number of women during his Hollywood days.
(2) The Greed Scandal: The private sector produces plenty of Greed Scandals--think of Martha Stewart, or Ivan Boesky, or Enron--but unless an elected official is pursued by an overhanging investigation from his or her past, Greed Scandals are most likely to appear in tandem with their close cousin, the Graft Scandal (see #3 below).
The perfect Greed Scandal includes instances of outrageously conspicuous consumption or a memorable tag-line, such as Leona Helmsley's legendary remark that "only the little people pay taxes."
(3) The Graft Scandal: Graft is about the varied ways politicians find to move money into their pockets. It isn't always illegal, and in its smallest and pettiest manifestations it can seem embarrassingly tacky, from free meals and minor junkets to Sherman Adams's famous vicuna coat and the home-construction favors lavished on former Connecticut Governor John Rowland.
Politicians are often stunned to discover the public's outrage at this kind of graft, which shows how out of touch public office holders frequently become.
The Clinton years were awash in Graft Scandals, most prominently the various gifts bestowed on Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. For the most part, once again, the Bush administration has steered clear of significant Graft Scandals--just as an ever-growing case involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens a number of members of Congress. The defendants are trotting out the usual litany of excuses: everybody does it; the favors weren't that big; there's no connection to any official activity (unless there was); I didn't know he was a bad guy; etc. Graft scandals generally aren't enough, on their own, to bring down a strong and popular politician, but for someone with a lot of enemies and a other problems, they can be fatal.
(4) The Influence-Peddling Scandal: Think of it as Graft Plus, where the receipt of graft is explicitly connected to official action. The people who shower money and gifts on public officials rationally expect some benefit in return, but it's usually difficult to get hard evidence of a quid pro quo. Perhaps the most sensational Influence Peddling Scandal of recent times was Abscam in the late 1970s. The most recent one at the federal level--unless and until Abramoff starts talking--is the guilty plea by GOP Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who took bribes to influence defense contracts.
(5) The Fundraising Scandal: Campaigns cost money and most politicians will accept campaign contributions from people from whom they would never accept a direct gift. Combine the hydraulic pressure to continually raise money, the need and desire of all sorts of favor-seekers to use contributions to build good will, and the increasingly Byzantine complexity of the campaign-finance laws, and you have a recipe for endless scandal.
The complexity and illogic of campaign-finance laws makes this species of scandal easy to allege, but hard to prove. Figures as diverse as Al Gore and Newt Gingrich have thus landed in the gray area between accusations and criminal charges. The case against Tom DeLay looks likely to end the same way. Campaign scandals are rarely career-enders.
(6) The Abuse of Power Scandal: Elected officials can make other people's lives difficult. Subordinates and political opponents can be fired, blackballed, investigated, arrested, burglarized, wiretapped, sued, sexually harassed, subjected to damaging leaks . . . you name it. The avalanche of scandals that flowed from Watergate included a litany of Abuse of Power Scandals, leading to an extensive overhaul of federal laws governing the power of the executive.
Republicans tried to make many of the Clinton scandals into Abuse of Power Scandals, from Filegate to Travelgate to Lewinsky. Unfortunately for them, the media--and to a large degree, the public--only saw the Paula Jones/Lewinsky mess as a Vice Scandal.
Democrats have been less successful, although no less active, in seeking an Abuse of Power theme against the Bush administration. The most sensational, but in some ways the flimsiest, of these efforts is the Valerie Plame story.
(7) The National Security Scandal: Charges that the defendant has betrayed or otherwise weakened national security are most serious sort of scandal. Other than leak investigations and the occasional conspiracy theory (think "October Surprise"), it's been a long time since we have seen anything like the heyday of National Security Scandals in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when accusations of spying and Communist sympathies abounded. Indeed, that "McCarthy" era gave these scandals such a bad reputation that today it is difficult to accuse anyone of compromising national security without facing a media backlash. That hasn't prevented a few such scandals from cropping up, notably the problems with nuclear labs in New Mexico and controversies over the sale of technology to China.
(8) The Foreign Policy Scandal: The Foreign Policy Scandal is distinct from the National Security Scandal, because the thrust of the accusation is not that the defendant has compromised national security, but rather that he has acted overzealously or illegally in pursuit of the national interest. Unsurprisingly, this is a charge Democrats tend to employ frequently against Republicans.
This was a never-ending theme of multiple Congressional and Independent Counsel investigations in the Reagan years--culminating in the Iran-Contra affair. Today it has returned with a vengeance as another Republican administration pushes legal envelopes in pursuit of a global struggle that many Democrats reject from stem to stern. Thus, the furor over NSA wiretaps on Al Qaeda communications into the United States, and blow-ups over pre-Iraq War intelligence, Abu Ghraib, etc.
Democrats seem endlessly bewildered by the fact that most Foreign Policy Scandals are not nearly as potent as the media makes them out to be. Of course, that's probably because they serve to underline the impression that Republicans are willing to take steps to defend the nation that Democrats won't--an impression that has proven poisonous not for the Republicans charged with wrong-doing, but for Democrats.
(9) The Cover-Up: It's an old rule of prosecutors and journalists, made legendary by Watergate and Lewinsky: If you can't charge the crime, charge the cover-up. The Cover-Up is a flexible sort of scandal, one that can be a cherry-on-top.
(10) The Guilt By Association Scandal: It's the last refuge of scandal-mongers: When you can't find misconduct by the target, find a close associate engaged in disreputable, immoral, or criminal conduct. Perhaps the ultimate example of this was Enron--while the collapse of Enron was a fascinating story in its own right, the story was clearly given much greater prominence than other, similar corporate scandals because of Enron CEO Kenneth Lay's status as one of George W. Bush's top financial supporters. Even as you read this, political advertisements are no doubt being written or filmed somewhere tying your senator or representative to Jack Abramoff.
AS YOU TICK OFF THE LIST, you see that the Bush administration has taken its hits, but by and large it has not been nearly as tarred as prior two-term administrations (although its allies in Congress and in the governor's mansions have not been either as clean or fortunate). So lucky has he been that, in many cases, Bush has been blessed by scandals that may even have been politically counterproductive for Democrats.