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March of the Banana Republicans

While the GOP's lock-step strategy has helped the party achieve considerable power, its intolerance for opposing viewpoints has led to disastrous domestic and foreign policy decisions. Welcome to the one-party state.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from 'Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America into a One-Party State' (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin) by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber.

bookIn a democracy, Alexander Hamilton believed: "The differences of opinion, and the jarrings of parties . . . often promote deliberation and circumspection; and serve to check the excesses of the majority." Although these jarrings and clashings sometimes seem messy, contentious and wasteful, in fact they are one of the great strengths of democracy in both peacetime and wartime.

If, however, a single viewpoint or party is able to drown out or suppress the views of others, a different dynamic sets in. One-party dominated states and hierarchical, command-driven social systems are notorious for their tendency to make disastrous decisions, in the areas of both domestic and foreign policy. China's cultural revolution and the Soviet Union's failed economic development plans are among the most extreme but not the only cases in point. In the field of foreign affairs, Napoleon and Hitler both disdained dissenting advice and found doom attacking Russia. Saddam Hussein met a similar fate when, after fighting a debilitating war with Iran, he invaded Kuwait and triggered the wrath of other nations. As we detailed in our previous book, Weapons of Mass Deception , the Bush administration seems to have made the same mistake when it believed its own propaganda promoting war with Iraq.

The U.S. military has a term for this type of information system: "incestuous amplification," which Jane's Defense Weekly defines as "a condition in warfare where one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation." Psychologists have a similar term: "group polarization," which describes the tendency for like-minded people, talking only with one another, to end up believing a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.

The Republican Party's philosophy and political organizing strategies have been remarkably successful at helping the party achieve and consolidate power in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Simultaneously, however, they have created conditions that make incestuous amplification and group polarization more likely in disparate areas of America's political arena.

The Revolving Door

Shortly after President Bush took office, one of his most trusted campaign advisors, Ed Gillespie, took a brief break from heading up his own lobbying and PR firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates. Gillespie, whose clients have included Microsoft, Enron and Verizon, as well as the steel and logging industries, went to work for a few days as acting director of public affairs for the U.S. Commerce Department, where he assisted Secretary Donald Evans with the agency's reorganization under the newly elected Bush administration. Among his other activities, Gillespie arranged for the department to hire as its press secretary one of his own employees at Quinn Gillespie, Jim Dyke. Gillespie finished his work at the Commerce Department on February 15, 2001, and the following day he was back at work in his own office.

"Federal law requires departing government officials to wait one year to lobby agencies that employed them," observed Wall Street Journal reporter Jim VandeHei. "But that doesn't apply to Mr. Gillespie; his brief, 15-day tenure made him a temporary worker exempt from the cooling-off period. As a result, Mr. Gillespie is free to contact Mr. Evans on behalf of clients."

Gillespie was not alone. More than 150 Republican lobbyists worked on Bush's transition team. Diane Steed of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, which was created by the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers of America to fight against higher fuel efficiency standards, advised the Department of Transportation. Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist for Indian gambling, advised the Interior Department.

Many of Bush's permanent employees have also come from an inner circle of party-affiliated industry lobbyists. For the number-three spot at the Department of Labor, for example, Bush tapped Eugene Scalia, the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a labor lawyer who has specialized in representing management in labor disputes related to worker safety, especially the dangers of repetitive-stress injuries.

With regard to environmental-policy jobs, virtually all of Bush's appointees have consisted of attorneys and lobbyists for the very industries they were appointed to oversee. Timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey became assistant secretary for agriculture with responsibility for national forests. Steven Griles, a leading lobbyist for the oil, gas and coal industries, became deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior. A lobbyist for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge went to work as the Interior's envoy to Alaska. At the U.S. Justice Department, Wyoming attorney Tom Sansonetti -- a Republican activist who has lobbied on behalf of coal-mining operations -- was appointed to head the enforcement of environmental and natural-resource laws.

The revolving door between private lobbyists and government officials existed, of course, long before George W. Bush became president -- but Bush has taken it to new levels. When Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, people who assisted with his presidential transition were barred from lobbying agencies they helped for six months. The Bush administration, by contrast, saw no problem with having someone like Gillespie work for the White House one day and literally go to work as a lobbyist on the following one. "Helping out this administration is good for the country," Gillespie told the Wall Street Journal. "Anything we can do to help President Bush initially or from here on out we are happy to do."

Send My Regards to K Street

Much of the real power and influence peddling in Washington, DC begins on K Street, a nondescript corridor of office buildings located a few blocks north of the White House. K Street is where the big lobbying firms and corporate trade associations have their headquarters. It is sometimes referred to as the fourth branch of government. Many of the top K Street lobbyists are, in fact, former government officials -- senators, congressmen and their staffs that, after retiring from office (or after losing their last election) go to work as hired advocates for companies and industries. Their ability to influence government policy comes in part from the personal relationships they have with their former colleagues, and from the campaign contributions that corporations can channel to politicians who do their bidding. Lobbyists, as columnist Michael Kinsley has observed, are "a group of people who charge a lot of money to give disproportionate influence in our democracy to people with even more money."

Historically, however, the power of corporate lobbyists has been somewhat mitigated by the two-party system. Since the party in power could vary from one election to the next, K Street had to hire top names from both major parties as a way of ensuring access. Ideological differences between the parties therefore limited the ability of corporations to control the policy agenda. In addition to corporations, the Democratic Party needed to appeal to constituencies including the labor movement, minorities, environmentalists and other liberals who have historically turned out as voters and activists in support of the party's candidates.

As Nicholas Confessore observed in the July/August 2003 issue of the Washingtonian, the relationship between Democrats and lobbyists contained an "inherent tension": "For the most part, K Street groups supported Democrats because they had to and Republicans because they wanted to. The Democrats needed corporate money to stay competitive, but were limited by the pull of their liberal, labor-oriented base. Although the party became generally more pro-business during the 1980s, it had few natural constituencies on K Street." After Republicans achieved control over all sectors of the federal government in the early 21st century, however, corporate lobbyists were happy to jettison bipartisanship and throw their weight solidly behind the Republican machine, which targeted control of K Street by pressuring the major lobbying firms to hire only Republicans.

Party strategist Grover Norquist is one of the leading masterminds of this strategy. Working with Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, he launched the K Street Project in 1995 to compile a database of lobbyists. The database lists lobbyists' names, where they work, which party they belong to, where they have worked politically and how much money they have contributed to the candidates and causes of both parties. The purpose of the list is to decide who "deserves" access to the White House, Congress and federal agencies. Contributions to the wrong party can "buy you enemies," explained Congressman Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. According to Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian Coalition staffer who now works for Senator John McCain, the pressure on lobbyists has made Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay "the Dirty Harry of Capitol Hill, the bad cop. Every K Street lobbyist is shaking in their boots because K Street lives on access, and DeLay can shut off their oxygen."

Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is another key player in the K Street Project. In the months following the 2000 elections that gave Republicans the White House, Santorum began convening a private meeting each Tuesday morning of Republican lobbyists, attended sometimes by representatives from the White House and other senators. Democrats and journalists were not invited.

"The chief purpose of these gatherings is to discuss jobs -- specifically, the top one or two positions at the biggest and most important industry trade associations and corporate offices," Confessore reported. "Every week, the lobbyists present pass around a list of the jobs available and discuss whom to support. Santorum's responsibility is to make sure each one is filled by a loyal Republican -- a senator's chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated. After Santorum settles on a candidate, the lobbyists present make sure it is known whom the Republican leadership favors."

Republican dominance on K Street has further enhanced the party's fundraising advantage over Democrats. "An analysis of political donations by industry groups shows that over the past decade, 19 major sectors have shifted from a roughly 50-50 split between the two main parties -- or in some cases, a slightly pro-Democratic tilt -- to a solid alignment with the Republican Party, which now enjoys advantages exceeding 5 to 1 in some of these sectors," the Washington Post reported in November 2002.

Key industries that have shifted Republican include accounting, aerospace, alcoholic beverages, commercial banking, defense, health care and pharmaceuticals. "Just like the Democrats get a 90-10 split from the trial lawyers and labor, we will have 90-10 in the staffing on K Street and 90-10 business giving," Grover Norquist gloated in November 2002. But trial lawyers and labor give only a fraction of the amount that corporations donate to election campaigns. In 2002, contributions from businesses accounted for 73 percent of all election giving, compared to only 7 percent for labor. (Most of the remainder came from "ideological" or "other" donors, such as environmental groups, the National Rifle Association, clergy or nonprofit organizations.)

In place of the "inherent tension" that existed between Democratic politicians and K Street lobbyists, their ideological closeness with Republicans has made the party and its corporate supporters virtually indistinguishable. "Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, and others have set up a K Street patronage operation that effectively obliterates the distinction between conservatives and corporatists," conservative columnist David Brooks observed in June 2002. "And remember, when they brag about the growing merger between conservatives and the business community, they are talking about something akin to a merger between Sam's Video Shack and Blockbuster. The culture of the corporate community is bound to dominate the culture of conservatism, not the other way around."

Another indicator of the growing closeness of the corporate-conservative relationship is that corporations and their trade lobbies have gone beyond merely trying to influence politicians in Washington and have become propaganda machines that work to sell the Bush administration's policies to the general public.

"Beginning in the 1990s, Washington's corporate offices and trade associations began to resemble miniature campaign committees, replete with pollsters and message consultants," Confessore writes. "To supplement PAC [Political Action Committee] giving, which is limited by federal election laws, corporations vastly increased their advocacy budgets, with trade organizations spending millions of dollars in soft money on issue ad campaigns in congressional districts. And thanks to the growing number of associations whose executives are beholden to DeLay or Santorum, these campaigns are increasingly put in the service of GOP candidates and causes."

During the Iraq war, for example, radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications had its stations sponsor pro-war rallies nationwide and even banned the Dixie Chicks from their playlist after one band member criticized Bush. Companies such as General Motors, Verizon and Morgan Stanley have lobbied their stockholders and customers to promote Bush administration tax cuts, and the pharmaceutical industry both helped write and promote Bush's Medicare plan.

Double Standard

While Bill Clinton occupied the White House, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity stirred a major public scandal when it obtained a list of White House guests and found that Democratic Party donors and fundraisers, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, were among the guests who spent nights at the historic Lincoln bedroom. The CPI's 1996 report, titled "Fat Cat Hotel," sparked a Republican-led Senate investigation and became the topic of thousands of news reports and critical editorials, with headlines such as "Clinton's Cash Hunt," "Lincoln Bedroom Becomes Another Soiled Symbol," "Dozing for Dollars," and "Anatomy of a Scandal."

By contrast, there was almost no reporting -- let alone outrage or Senate investigation -- when the CPI reported, seven months after Bush took office, that the "fat cat hotel" was "still open for business." According to a list released by the White House, many of the new administration's guests had been major political donors, including at least six "Bush Pioneers" -- people who raised more than $100,000 for his presidential campaign. In a Republican-dominated political climate, no one raised an eyebrow about this sort of thing, because the investigating body -- the U.S. Senate -- was controlled by the same political party that ran the hotel.

Haley Barbour, who was elected governor of Mississippi in 2003, exemplifies the synergistic relationship between lobbying and fundraising. Barbour is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and also owns his own lobby shop, Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, which represents 50 major clients, including representatives of the tobacco, automobile, pharmaceutical, health care and transportation industries. Shortly after Bush took office, the company was named by Fortune magazine as the number one lobbying firm in Washington. It is also all male and all Republican. "Even receptionists and secretaries have to be Republican to be hired," noted the New York Times in a July 2001 profile.

Barbour is also the man in charge of raising money for Republican Senate campaigns. For some of them, including Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, he has raised millions of dollars, much of it coming in the form of large contributions from Barbour's own clients. Not surprisingly, money translates into influence. According to Charles Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, Barbour gave his corporate clients "a pipeline into Republican members of the Senate," and Barbour himself pretty much agrees. "People in the Senate have already made up their mind about me," he says. "I can't improve on my standing with these guys. I've worked closely with them over the years. They've been nice to me, and doors open to me, and they are willing to listen to my opinion on issues that they are dealing with on behalf of my clients. If you called anyone in town, they would tell you I cannot improve my standing with these senators."

Barbour's company is also closely tied to another firm, New Bridge Strategies, which was set up in June 2003 to help companies get the sweetest contracts for rebuilding Iraq. The president of New Bridge is Joe Allbaugh, a longtime close advisor of President Bush and a member of the so-called "iron triangle" of advisors -- himself, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove -- who have formed Bush's inner circle since he first ran for governor in 1994. The other top officers at New Bridge Strategies are Ed Rogers and Lanny Griffith -- Barbour's partners at Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, where Allbaugh's wife Diane also happens to work as an attorney. You might think these guys waste a lot of time shuttling back and forth between their jobs at BG&R and their jobs at New Bridge. Fortunately, that's not much of a problem, because they all share office space on the same floor of the same building, a couple of blocks from the White House.

And Barbour isn't the only well-connected Republican with one foot in government and the other in the Iraq contracting business. Douglas Feith is the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense and one of the most influential advocates within the Bush administration for war with Iraq. Feith is currently in charge of reconstruction at the Pentagon, while his former law partner, Marc Zell, is "assisting regional construction and logistics firms to collaborate with contractors from the United States and other coalition countries" through their former law firm -- previously called Feith & Zell, now rechristened Zell, Goldberg & Co.

With this kind of Republican clout, it isn't terribly surprising that the actual contracts for rebuilding Iraq have also gone to companies that give big donations to the Republicans. Weeks before the first bombs dropped in Iraq, the Bush administration began its plans for rebuilding the country. The plans were developed in secret, according to ABC News, with only a handful of companies allowed to bid on contracts for the reconstruction of Iraqi schools, airports, roads, bridges, hospitals and power plants. The companies allowed to bid were all generous political donors, mostly to Republicans: Bechtel, Fluor, Parsons, the Washington Group and Halliburton -- Vice President Dick Cheney's old firm.

In October 2003, the Center for Public Integrity tallied the contracts that had been awarded by then to projects in Iraq and found that the recipient companies "donated more money to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush -- a little over $500,000 -- than to any other politician over the last dozen years." The biggest winner by far was KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR got $2.3 billion in Iraq contracts, followed by Bechtel ($1 billion) and International American Products ($527 million).

The pattern is this: Companies like Halliburton give money to support Republican politicians, who in turn use their clout to ensure that the companies get fat contracts, who in turn give a portion of their profits to keep Republicans in power. Around and around the circle goes, and everybody gets a piece -- except, of course, for the rest of the American people, who pay the bill for all this fun with their tax dollars and the mounting federal deficit.

The danger in all of these interlocking relationships is that it breeds the "incestuous amplification" of one-sided thinking, leading to serious errors of judgment by policymakers. This helps explain how the Bush administration managed to convince itself that Iraq truly did possess awesome weapons of mass destruction, that it was closely tied to Al Qaeda, and that the people of Iraq would greet a U.S. invasion of their country as liberation.

Much of the administration's intelligence information about Iraq actually came from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an organization created and funded by the U.S. government at the behest of the first Bush administration for the purpose of creating conditions for Saddam Hussein's overthrow. Not surprisingly, the information from the INC and its head, Ahmed Chalabi, tended to reinforce the already-existing assumptions of policymakers in the second Bush administration, even when that information contradicted other reports coming from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The INC's "intelligence isn't reliable at all," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA official and counterterrorism expert. "Much of it is propaganda. Much of it is telling the Defense Department what they want to hear. And much of it is used to support Chalabi's own presidential ambitions. They make no distinction between intelligence and propaganda, using alleged informants and defectors who say what Chalabi wants them to say, [creating] cooked information that goes right into presidential and vice-presidential speeches."

John Stauber is the founder and director of the Center for Media & Democracy. He and Sheldon Rampton write and edit the quarterly 'PR Watch: Public Interest Reporting on the PR/Public Affairs Industry.