‘Wrecking Crew’ Exposes GOP Greed and Incompetence

By Roger Bybee

“I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money...and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money.” — Sen. Boies Penrose, R-Pa., 1896

Some whiners might point to the deceptive path to the disastrous Iraq War, the federal government’s “heckuva job” performance on Hurricane Katrina, and now the great meltdown of de-regulated Wall Street as evidence that the last eight years of Republican rule has represented continuous failure.

But Thomas Frank, author of the superb new best-seller The Wrecking Crew, views such problems as the inevitable results of a hard-line new conservative philosophy that views government first and foremost as a giant opportunity for private plunder, secondly as a resource for reward favored campaign contributors, and finally, as a chance to show the public that they should rely exclusively on the market, not the hopelessly incompetent government. Judged by this, the Wrecking Crew Republicans have been spectacularly successful.

In case anyone draws another conclusion—say, that the problem is with Republican vultures ruling the roost rather than government itself—the Republicans try to wipe their slate clean by claiming that certain excesses were committed merely due to the capital’s “culture of corruption.” What’s needed are “mavericks like John McCain and Sarah Palin who can come in and “reform” government with bold ideas like completing George W. Bush’s program of tax breaks (with 52% going to the richest 1%) and “winning” the war in Iraq after more than 4,000 Americans and over one million Iraqi civilians have lost their lives.

Of course, we needn’t be troubled by ancient history like McCain’s votes for de-regulating the finance and insurance industries or Palin scooping up $25 million for her tiny Alaskan village. After all, they’re “outsiders” running against Washington. Somehow, even when the Republicans are in power, “ The government is never theirs, no matter how much of it they happen to control” for which they might be held accountable,” Frank instructs us.

Frank depicts today’s Washington as “democracy buried under a deluge of money,” administered by a modernized version of Sen. Penrose’s infamous “division of labor.” Fortunately for the reader, the story of the Wrecking Crew’s work is relieved by Frank’s biting but understated wit and his keen eye for revealing detail, making the book a splendid but disturbing read.

Frank illustrates how present-day Republicans improved on Sen. Penrose’s arrangement through the “K Street Project.”  Spearheaded by then-Speaker Tom DeLay, the Project entailed business lobby groups ridding themselves of Democratic lobbyists and contributing exclusively to Republicans, in exchange for unparalleled influence in crafting industry-friendly laws. “It was a win-win proposition,” Frank points out.”Business would reap the rich rewards of their political investments, the political entrepreneurs of the right would prosper; and the left would simply starve.”

Grover Norquist, one of the central players in developing the ruling Republican strategy, lectures business leaders that they ought to invest more on campaign contributions and lobbying. Norquist recommended a Fortune article to Frank stating that “the return on lobbying investments can be truly enormous,” using numbers like 163,356% to drive home the point.

The connection between private industry’s payoffs and policy paybacks has become more efficient than ever under the new GOP strategy. Thus, we had the spectacle of Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, ramming through a Medicare drug bill written precisely to the pharmaceutical industry’s specifications—specifically forbidding the federal government from negotiating discounts for the public—and then being rewarded with a $2 million position as the president of the drug industry’s lobbying organization. 

The Republicans’ smooth-running legislative machine was oiled by the unshakeable dedication of Bush and Cheney to “market-based government, but Norquist and others who met as Young Republicans—like Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, and Karl Rove— supplied the creative genius needed to convert the conservative movement into a vehicle for profit. One group of young conservatives found that the cause of the US-created Nicaraguan contras, despite their preference for killing “soft targets” like teachers and nurses over combat with real soldiers—was a big money-raiser. Out of $12 million donated by wealthy American right-wingers in the mid-1980’s, only $2.7 million actually reached the contras, the remainder siphoned off by cynical and newly-wealthy young rightists.

Abramoff—despite the religious pieties he spouted—moved from a right-wing campus bully into ever-bigger arenas. His student organization, the International Freedom Foundation, essentially served as a PR front group to legitimate South African apartheid policies. Abramoff eventually became a remarkably successful political entrepreneur selling his vast influence. He was richly rewarded for protecting the brutal, almost slavish sweatshop conditions in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, an American territory, which Tom DeLay tellingly proclaimed a “perfect petri dish of capitalism.” Abramoff skillfully played Indian tribes (whose leaders he called “monkeys,” “morons, and “idiots”) against each other over gambling casinos, while raking in money from both sides. Eventually, Abramoff, wearing a black fedora and his 5-o’clock shadow to court that appropriately triggered sinister images from old gangster movies, was convicted of defrauding the Indian tribes and corrupting federal lawmakers with lavish trips and gifts.

But as Frank stresses, Abramoff’s downfall was dismissed by many conventional commentators as merely a case of him “going native” in the inevitable Washington “culture of corruption.” Meanwhile, the structural dependence of elected officials and candidates on ever-growing campaign contributions flowing heavily from America’s richest 1%—chiefly corporate CEOs— was conveniently ignored. Moreover, the corrosive lesson taught by such flagrant corruption was also neglected. As Frank explains, “instead of reinforcing the fragile institutions of civic trust you smash them, you encourage cynicism toward government, and if you get a chance you put the whole thing—conspicuously—on a for-hire basis.”

Thus, we have the Department of Labor defining business—rather than workers—as its “primary customer.” We see the occupation of Iraq privatized, with the number of $1,000 per day mercenaries from Blackwater and other private firms roughly equivalent to the number of US troops, according to Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater. Youthful Republican zealots were recruited by American viceroy Paul Bremer to totally re-configure Iraq’s economy—without the slightest consultation with Iraqis—as a “free-market” paradise, eliminating even the most urgently-needed government functions like cement factories to build protective walls against explosions, as Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein documented.

Many of the Iraq occupation’s most grotesque aspects have been kept from us by Pentagon control of media access. But the full effects of the Wrecking Crew’s ideologically-driven mismanagement were driven home to Americans by the pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina. As Frank acidly writes,

“By now over $100 billion has been spent, but parts of New Orleans remain empty. Repairing public housing seems to have been a low priority; rebuilding casinos an urgent one. All this might seem like social engineering in a cruelly 19th-century mode, but in fact it is the unavoidable result of a recovery plan comprised of tax cuts for entrepreneurs, fat handouts to chosen contractors and toxic trailers for those who can’t afford big handouts to the GOP.”

This shameful episode reflects more than greed and opportunism in the face of unspeakable misery, Frank warns us. Quoting the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, the corruption of recent years is simply not a string of separate crimes but “a natural process by which a democracy us made gradually over into a plutocracy,” a government by and for the wealthy.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer. E-mail winterbybee@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2008

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2008 The Progressive Populist.