Based on what we've learned about the Enron scandal so far, the mainstream media and Democrats, both salivating over the possibility of another Republican Watergate, ought to quietly tuck their tails between their legs and forget about it.
Sadly, it doesn't appear that this is going to happen, at least not if Democrats follow the advice of commentator and columnist Chris Matthews.
I grew to respect Matthews during the Clinton investigations as a man of intellectual integrity. His affinity for liberalism and the Democratic Party did not keep him from speaking out about Clinton corruption. And, as a columnist, he has every right to tell the Democratic Party what it ought to do to win the next round of elections. But his advice in this case, in my opinion, is destructive.
Matthews implicitly concedes that there's no direct Republican scandal concerning Enron. The Bush administration down the line refused the pleas for help from Enron's executives. Besides, Democrats were probably equal beneficiaries of Enron's political largesse. But Matthews has another angle in mind.
Says Matthews, "Here's how the Democrats should play this Enron thing: (1) Shoot to kill! Remember Mayor Richard Daley's orders to the Chicago police back in 1968? ... 'Shoot to kill.' Democrats should take Boss Daley's words to heart when they talk about the men who looted Enron. What inner-city rioters did to retail stores in the late 1960s, the big shots did to Enron. They looted the place. This is the story Democrats need to repeat until November. (2) Place the blame humbly and smartly on the Republicans ... the Republicans have a special weakness: a too-easy coziness with boardroom types, especially oil guys ... President Bush calls the Enron chief executive officer 'Kenny Boy.'"
Matthews suggests that Republicans can be tarred with Enron simply because of their image of being friendly to "big" corporations and Bush and Cheney's ties to the oil industry in general, and Enron in particular. "Enron's downfall," writes Matthews, "tells you something about the people in charge."
Oh? And what might that be, Chris? That despite his personal relationship with Enron's principals, President Bush possesses the character not to have used his political influence to rescue the corrupt company?
Not according to Matthews. He doesn't seem willing to exonerate the Bush administration on the basis of its actual behavior in this matter. Instead, he urges, Democrats should seek to taint the GOP by its mere association with Enron-type companies. "Instead of attacking the Republicans for Enron, the Democrats should attack the problem of Enron. They should continue to voice their empathy for the working families who got hurt and anger at those who did the looting. The voters will get the message ... A deep and abiding connection exists between a party's constituents and its positions. Bush and Cheney are oil and gas guys who feel at ease among oil and gas guys."
There you have it: liberal logic fast at work. You see, it doesn't matter that Republicans while in power refused to help their friends. What matters is that they
are their friends. Since Matthews is advocating judgment by reputation rather than actual behavior, does this mean that the Clinton administration, because of its reputed unfriendliness to business, would have been free to have come to the aid of an Enron-type company?
I find this line of thinking not only illogical, but potentially harmful. What Mathews is saying essentially is that Democrats should not let this Enron "opportunity" pass because Bush's and Cheney's ties to big oil are just too delicious not to exploit.
Despite Matthews' obvious fascination with political gamesmanship, American politics is not just a contest between the two major political parties to see who can win at any cost. Ideas, including his prescription for the Democratic Party, have consequences. Pitting people against each other on the basis of their relative degrees of wealth -- or their race, gender or religion, to name a few of the Democrats' other platforms for divisiveness -- foments envy, greed and resentment. That's manifestly bad for society, regardless of who wins elections.
The lesson from Enron is not that big business (and therefore Republicans who are cozy with big business) is corrupt, but that specific companies are sometimes corrupt. The remedy is not to demonize the oil and gas industry or to punish the party of the two that promotes capitalism, but to make the individuals responsible for the misconduct (and the company in their charge) accountable. That's the American way.
But focusing on individual behavior (or encouraging individualism) is not the Democrats' strong suit. They get much more mileage out of alienating various groups. Hopefully, if they employ Matthews' strategy, this time they'll alienate voters as a group.