They Don't Know Jack

The Abramoff scandal thrills Washington but bores voters.


Six months ago, Washington pundits could agree on one thing: The Jack Abramoff scandal was going to shake the city to its foundations. New York Times columnist Frank Rich opined that "Watergate itself increasingly looks like a relatively contained epidemic of corruption" next to l'affaire de Jack. Awarding a journalism prize to Washington Post investigative reporter Susan Schmidt, Bloomberg's Washington managing editor, Al Hunt, said "the Abramoff affair may be the biggest and sleaziest scandal since Watergate." Rumors swirled that dozens of representatives and senators would be dodging indictments. House Speaker Dennis Hastert? Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid? President Bush? No one was safe.

But they're all safe now. The Abramoff scandal has largely been a bust—a D.C. version of the 2005 Red Sox or Lady in the Water. The dozens of ruined careers have been pared to four: failed Georgia lieutenant governor candidate Ralph Reed, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), and, pending the next election's results, and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). The Democrats, who spent months talking about a Republican "culture of corruption," dialed down that message and pivoted to simpler, worn-in issues like the minimum wage.

In April The Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti published The K Street Gang, a wide-ranging history of Abramoff and the lobbying culture in GOP-dominated Washington. Gang was promoted to millions of readers and viewers on The Daily Show, in The Washington Post, in Reason. Doubleday printed an initial run of 50,000 copies. According to Nielsen Bookscan, around 47,000 of them never left the bookstore shelves. The word went out to publishers and agents: Don't buy any Abramoff books.

Why did the fedora-sporting lobbyist who was going to bring down the GOP become such a dim star in the 2006 election campaigns? Because Washingtonians failed to grasp how poorly the "corruption" issue was playing beyond their borders, and looked past what voters really were angry about.

Americans never caught on to the details of the Abramoff scandal and never indicated that they cared about it. One reason: They didn't need convincing that Congress was crooked. A January Gallup poll found 49 percent of the public agreed that "most members of Congress are corrupt." Gallup took the survey again in May, after Abramoff stories had led nightly newscasts and eloped with the A-1 pages of Americans' newspapers. The new "pox on all their houses" number: 47 percent.

"This was a kind of 'I've been in Washington too long' moment," says Michael Crowley, a senior editor at The New Republic who covered the Abramoff scandal. "I don't think I appreciated the degree to which that was the sentiment. 'surprise, surprise! They're all corrupt.'"

Americans were bored. They were also, in all probability, confused. When the GOP took over Congress in 1995, the well-connected Abramoff started lobbying Congress to loosen regulations on Indian tribes' casino operations. Abramoff and his allies proceeded to bilk the tribes and use the profits to buy trips for congressmen and put their hooks into other, riskier businesses, such as casino cruises off the coast of Florida. The latter venture connected Abramoff's team with an Agatha Christie–ready cast of criminals; a circus of bad deals and murders finally unraveled the game. It isn't a dull story, but it was too thorny and obscure to connect with voters.

The Democrats had planned to run on the Abramoff scandal's fumes. In a January memo, when the lobbyist was shuttling from courtroom to courtroom and making his guilty pleas, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (or one of his flacks) wrote a memo mulling a national anti-Jack campaign. The document overran with glee about a scandal that "strike[s] at the heart of the Republican political machine that stretches from Congress to K Street, to the White House and back."

"I don't think anyone thought millions and millions of Americans would march to polls to vote against Jack Abramoff," says Ed Kilgore, vice president for policy at the Democratic Leadership Council. "But it was useful for opinion leaders and elites. It was part of a larger narrative of this Republican Congress that had been around too long and gotten corrupt and incompetent."

The Democrats' "culture of corruption" blitz was stopped cold by two Donkey Party candidates. One was Francine Busby, a school board member and Democratic candidate for Congress in California's 50th District. The previous steward of the San Diego and Orange County–based seat had been Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who in March had tearfully pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Cunningham went to jail, and Busby, his vanquished 2004 opponent, ran again for the seat. She faced a former Republican congressman and current energy lobbyist named Brian Bilbray.

It was a perfect test case for Democrats to shower voters with ads, mail, and speeches about how corrupt the Abramoff-tainted GOP was, and how a lobbyist like Bilbray couldn't fix it.

But as a political issue, corruption collapsed at the startling line. Bilbray ran on walling off the Mexican border and denying amnesty to migrant workers. His slogan: "Proven tough on illegal immigration." The immigration issue was overshadowing the corruption jibes even before Busby made a fatal gaffe and told a group of Spanish-speaking workers that they didn't "need papers for voting." Five days later, Bilbray won the election.

Democrats were flummoxed. Their polls showed voters were angry at Congress. But they weren't angry about the scandals. They were angry at Congress's perceived softness on illegal immigration, and angry at legislators ramming pork projects into bills via "earmarks" (which Bilbray denounced, although once elected he voted down new restrictions on earmarking). If voters in an election for a seat opened up by a bribery scandal didn't care about corruption, where, exactly, would the issue play?

If Busby made the narrative dubious, Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-La.) obliterated it altogether. As the year ran on and the Abramoff scandal started to drift out of the spotlight, the FBI revealed that it had built a solid bribery case against the congressman from New Orleans, linking him to a Nigerian high-tech firm and excavating $90,000 in cash disguised as lasagna in his freezer. It became much harder to frame the Democrats as the party of clean politics.

"I think Jefferson dealt a pretty severe blow to the viability of the [corruption] message," The New Republic's Crowley says. "It's not at all comparable to the Abramoff scandal, which was basically a vast conspiracy, but it's hard to make that connection to voters. And 'cash in the freezer' is a pretty handy and quick comeback."

What happened in May was even more important. After the FBI raided Jefferson's congressional office, the Republican House leaders pounced to defend him. Rep. John Boehner, the chain-smoking Ohioan who had replaced Tom DeLay as majority leader, condemned the FBI for its "invasion of the legislative branch." House Speaker Dennis Hastert locked arms with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to demand that Jefferson's files be returned or locked away.

That response hurt Congress' image as much as all of the year's scandals. Voters can be enticed back to the polls if the worst thing their congressman is accused of is working with lobbyists or taking pricey trips. But the idea of politicians circling the wagons to defend a colleague from a justified investigation made them furious. An ABC News poll taken after the raid showed 86 percent of Americans backing FBI searches of congressional offices, nearly double the number who worried about their congressman being corrupt.

Journalists on the Abramoff beat warn that more indictments could come down. The Democrats, who need an Uzi full of silver bullets if they're to take over Congress, are holding out hope that the scandal isn't over. But it is. The "corrupt lobbyist buys Washington" narrative just wasn't compelling. Voters are spitting mad at Washington: They're mad about spending, the Iraq war, the self-parodying immigration deadlock, and the idea that people in D.C. deserve special protection from the law.