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Scandalology

A beginner's guide to the political scandal.

11:00 PM, Jan 31, 2006 • By DAN MCLAUGHLIN
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(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.