Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

TPM Reader LH considers the Abramoff Affair and another scandal from yesteryear. We join in the email in progress, after some preliminaries ...

There is a lesson to be learned from the "Abscam" investigations that should be applied to any examination of that constellation of events that fall under the heading of "The Abramoff Matter." (hereafter TAM). That lesson is that TAM exceeds the scope of the legal system and, specifically, the Justice Department. This is what "Abscam" taught us. If you recall "Abscam" was a DOJ sting operation that offered bribes to congressmen. It turned out that it was a very successful sting and several members of Congress were prosecuted. But then the operation was terminated although if anything was learned it was that there were more opportunities for success. It was terminated precisely because of its success. The DOJ determined that they might be able to unseat as much as a third of the sitting Congress if they continued. DOJ determined that if they did continue then what began as a law enforcement project could alter the political balance within the Legislative branch. The DOJ decided, rightly I believe, that it was not their place to fundamentally alter that political balance.

And so it will be with TAM. At some point TAM will become a potent enough matter to be profoundly political in nature and those involved in the legal system will have to withdraw. To do otherwise would be to improperly engage the legal system in a political contest and undermine the foundational premise of an independent judiciary. This is the tightrope that Fitzgerald is walking in the Plame matter. So long as he is pursuing the violation of a particular Federal statute he is on solid ground. But were he to find himself standing on the threshold of something that, if pursued, could alter the political balance of power then he would have to retreat. Otherwise he would fall into that political contest and improperly involve DOJ in the public arena of political combat.

It would be wise of those of us who are offended by the realities of TAM to resist the temptation to view TAM as a fundamentally legal matter. Rather we should debate it within the arena of political and social ethics. If we cannot win the contest on the basis of these ethical principles then no legal system can save us from ourselves.


Over at TPMCafe, Max Sawicky notes and decries a possible parallel between 2006 and 1974.

'74 was the Watergate election, a mid-term which brought in a big crop of reformist Democrats, more than a few of whom are still around thirty years later. In retrospect, the '74 midterm looks quite different than it must have at the time. It recemented the Democratic hold on Congress that would endure for two more decades. And it anticipated Democrat Jimmy Carter's win two years later.

Judged from the perspective of thirty years on, however, '74 and '76 were more like speed bumps or momentary retrenchments in the conservative realignment of American politics which started at least as far back as 1966. It picked up steam again in 1978. Ronald Reagan was elected president two years later, etc.

Max says "Watergate ushered in a generation of Democratic politicians with little in the way of ideological commitment other than honesty. Not long after Watergate we got the Reagan revolution."

I'm not sure that's it precisely, though. Or perhaps the disagreement is one of cause and effect. A more economical answer, I think, is that the country was in the midst of a broad shift toward the right. The scandals surrounding Watergate upended the political dynamic in the country but not the ideological one. And as soon as those implicated in Watergate left the scene the broad pattern reasserted itself.

Of course, this may be an overdeterministic view of the past. A bunch of small changes could have made things turn out differently.

But it does at least suggest one point worth considering: the other side's scandals can reshuffle the political cards temporarily. But it probably won't be for that long if the scandals aren't intrinsically connected to the bases of the afflicted party's power or if their fall-out doesn't catalyze a some deeper political and ideological reconfiguration in the country. Nixon's dirty-tricksterism wasn't at the heart of the rise of the American right in the late 20th century. So it continued on without him.

I went back to look how I marked the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005 a year ago. And it turns out that I didn't even mention it -- apparently because I was so deep into harassing and chronicling the slithers and wiggles of the 'Fainthearted Faction'. I'm sure it was a better use of my time.

The last post of 2004 was a teaser about a "leadership shake-up in the fainthearted faction" and I followed up with six posts, all on the same topic, on January 1st.

I'm not sure it would have occurred to me to do a year-ending post. But a number of other blogs I read have done so. So I'll give it a try.

First, I'd like to thank the readers of this site, and even more thank the core of regulars who visit every day, send tips, feedback, criticism, all of it. I've been doing this now for more than five years. And sometimes it's hard for familiarity not to lead to taking for granted the fact that something like a hundred thousand people show up to read this site on any given weekday.

So let me just say that I really appreciate your being a reader of this site. On top of that I want to say a special thanks to the few thousand of you who've contributed this year to the upkeep and now expansion of what we're doing. Thanks.

Now on to a more substantive issue.

For folks of my political persuasion, last year ended on a very bleak note. But things started going badly for the president from the beginning of 2005 and went down hill from there. Looking toward next year, a lot of stars seem to be in alignment for the Democrats. And history, scandal and the comeuppance of past mistakes and villainies all seem stacked against the president and his party.

A moment so pregnant with possibility has inevitably turned to speculation about how the Dems could blow it -- which is a possibility well worth considering. And that leads to all the questions of which issues should the Democrats pursue, which will position them better, should they have more new ideas -- those and a thousand other questions that, together, all amount to paralysis and a morbid self-indulgence and introspection.

I say let's forget about all of that. Far better to concentrate on two things.

First, attack!

Saying that amounts to a lightning rod in itself, hoisted up for battering from all sorts of scolds. But it's nothing to be ashamed of. The point of a political opposition is to oppose -- if there are no grounds for opposition, then there is no reason for such an opposition to exist. Better to join the president's party or go out of existence. And certainly, for those who share the perspective of this site, there is plenty to oppose. To say 'attack!' simply means to maintain the initiative in the debates of the day -- always. And when it's lost to get it back as soon as possible.

Second, you can't be an opposition without knowing what you oppose and what you're for.

Bad writing is usually imprecise writing -- and its badness usually stems from the bad writer not having taken the time to think through just what he or she means to say. The cobwebs and vagaries of their minds are revealed in bad prose.

Bad politics usually stems from people not having a clear idea of what they're trying to achieve, where they're trying to go. Once you know where you're trying to lead the country, strategy and tactics and optics and gutting the other side all tend to fall into place. If not perfectly, then a whole lot easier. Where do we want to take the country? Forget the rest and think about that. That's the guiding star.

Enough of my sermonizing. Happy New Year!

Another point on the excellent Abramoff piece in today's Post (discussed below).

Look at the sums of money involved and the what they were being used for -- off-the-books political activity and individual personal enrichment. A lot of attention has been focused on 'hard money' contributions from Abramoff and his associates and clients. But these hard money (i.e., federally regulated contributions) pale in comparison to the sums of money talked about here. They're not the real story or the heart of the money lubricating the cogs of this machine. They're more like the initial ante up. As in the case with Duke Cunningham, the above-board hard money contributions were more like a clue to the real action going on either out of the regulated money system or through straight out cash bribes.

Late edition? An interesting revision pointed out to me by TPM Reader SM. In last night's version of the AP story reporting Jack Abramoff's impending plea deal, AP writer Toni Locy wrote ...

Abramoff’s cooperation would be a boon to an ongoing Justice Department investigation of congressional corruption, possibly helping prosecutors build criminal cases against up to 20 lawmakers and their staff members.

Overnight versions were updated as follows (emphasis added) ...

Abramoff's cooperation would be a boon to an ongoing Justice Department investigation of congressional corruption, possibly helping prosecutors build criminal cases against up to 20 lawmakers of both parties and their staff members.

Noting the change of course leaves untouched the underlying question of the accuracy of the reporting. Will Abramoff finger Dem lawmakers and members of their staffs? I've heard scatterings of rumors that he'll try to tag at least a couple on his way down. Just to keep things fair and balanced. Of course, he can't do things unilaterally. Public Integrity lawyers at the Justice Department have to be convinced, either by Abramoff or other evidence they've collected, that they got cases.

AP: "Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff are putting the finishing touches on a plea deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The plea agreement would secure the lobbyist's testimony against several members of Congress who received favors from him or his clients."

Buckle-up your seatbelts. Then go read this Post article on Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Russian arms-and-oil hustlers, a piggy bank called the U.S. Family Network and a whole lot more.

First off, this is a helluva piece of reporting. And the story the author, R. Jeffrey Smith, tells has so many moving parts that it's not easy to summarize. If you want all the details, just go read the thing. It'll be time well spent.

The key points, though, ran as follows, near as I can tell.

For five years in the late 1990s there was an outfit called the U.S. Family Network, a pretty classic astroturf operation and, like a number of them, pretty closely linked with Tom DeLay.

Only USFN did little or no public advocacy on behalf of conservative family issues or much of anything else. It seems to have been run pretty much as a piggy bank and money pass-through by and for a number of DeLay operators -- including Jack Abramoff and Ed Buckham.

The Marianas Island sweatshop folks chipped in half a million dollars; the Choctaws chipped in a quarter million; and some shadowy Russian oil and gas interests (also Abramoff clients) ponied up a cool million dollars for USFN -- money laundered through a now-defunct British law firm. (The Russians apparently wanted to give DeLay a fancy car; but DeLay's folks suggested that might cause problems.)

Basically everybody who gave was getting something from DeLay; and USFN was the coin machine. As Smith puts it, rather prosaically, "records, other documents and interviews call into question the very purpose of the U.S. Family Network, which functioned mostly by collecting funds from domestic and foreign businesses whose interests coincided with DeLay's activities while he was serving as House majority whip from 1995 to 2002, and as majority leader from 2002 until the end of September. (italics added)"

And what did the money from USFN go for? A ton of it seems to have been cycled back to Ed Buckham's firm, The Alexander Strategy Group -- one of key money gatekeepers in the DeLay machine. Some went for attack ads against Democrats and other political operations. A pretty sizeable chunk was ...

used to finance the cash purchase of a townhouse three blocks from DeLay's congressional office. DeLay's associates at the time called it "the Safe House."

DeLay made his own fundraising telephone pitches from the townhouse's second-floor master suite every few weeks, according to two former associates. Other rooms in the townhouse were used by Alexander Strategy Group, Buckham's newly formed lobbying firm, and Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), DeLay's leadership committee.

They paid modest rent to the U.S. Family Network, which occupied a single small room in the back.

Like I said, you can read all the lurid details in the piece. But let's back up for a moment to get a look at the big picture.

What's going on here? Abramoff's involved in this one; but not just him -- one-time partner and (surprisingly dangerous to Abramoff) eventual rival Ed Buckham. Foreign and domestic corporations pay money in to front groups for favors. And what happens to the money? Lots certainly goes to personally enrich the chief lobbyists like Abramoff and Buckham. But look closely and you'll see that lots gets pumped back in to the machine -- the capitol hill 'safe house', political ads, money to the consultancies that no doubt underwrites other political operations, 'grassroots' and otherwise.

It's like we've been telling you for months. This is a slush fund. Lots of secret money, often from overseas, that can get spread around off the books in DC. That's how this sort of political machine works.

Here's a question some of our lawyer readers may be able to help with -- but software developers and others may have good suggestions too.

As regular readers know, we've spent a decent amount of time this last year putting together timelines of key events and stories, often with reader participation. As we build toward launching TPMmuckraker.com we're looking for ways to put these projects together in a more organized and graphically intuitive way.

Now, I know that there is software designed primarily for litigators who want to use graphically intuitive timelines in their courtroom presentations. So that's one source of software we might be able to use to put information together in a more user-friendly way than just a straight vertical list of events in chronological order. I know there are other niche software tools available that do similar sorts of things as well.

So if you've worked with any of these programs or tools of whatever sort, can you drop us a line? Let us know how well you think the tool worked, whether it produces timelines that might be useful for us as we create various scandal and event timelines at TPMmuckraker.com. Thanks in advance for your help.