The Oval: The Ties That Bind?

Members of Congress aren't the only ones moving to distance themselves from former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty Tuesday in a bribery and corruption probe that has sent official Washington into a tailspin. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan announced that President George W. Bush's re-election campaign will donate $6,000 in contributions linked to Abramoff to the American Heart Association. According to the Republican National Committee, which is handling the distribution, the campaign will donate three $2,000 checks from Abramoff, his wife and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe, which paid Abramoff tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees to press lawmakers on gambling issues.

The move follows other top politicos in Washington, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former House majority leader Tom DeLay, who have announced plans to donate Abramoff-linked contributions to charity. All told, lawmakers from both political parties have given up nearly $300,000 in contributions with ties to the embattled lobbyist in recent weeks. Bush's decision, McClellan told reporters Wednesday, was a "typical step" in the wake of Abramoff's guilty plea on charges that he bribed public officials and their aides in exchange for official favors.

Yet the Bush-Cheney campaign is returning only a fraction of the campaign contributions it received with Abramoff connections. During the 2004 campaign, Abramoff was a top fund-raiser for the Bush re-election effort, raising more than $100,000 for the campaign. While exact figures on how much he raised for the campaign aren't known, Abramoff told The New York Times in July 2003--months before active fund-raising began--that he had already raised $120,000 for the Bush-Cheney campaign. "And I haven't even started making phone calls," the lobbyist told the Times. An Orthodox Jew, Abramoff was considered an important intermediary between Jewish groups and the Bush campaign, which worked heavily to make inroads with the voting bloc. When fund-raising began for Bush's re-election effort, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a prominent Seattle radio host and activist, urged friends and colleagues to steer campaign checks to Bush via Abramoff.

For now, the Bush-Cheney campaign has no plans to donate or return funds raised by Abramoff from other individuals. "At this point, there is nothing to indicate that contributions from those individual donors represents anything other than enthusiastic support for the [Bush-Cheney] re-election campaign," RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said.

Yet Abramoff's ties to the administration extended well beyond campaign checks. In 2001, Bush tapped the lobbyist as a member of his Presidential Transition Team, advising the administration on policy and hiring at the Interior Department, which oversees Native American issues. Abramoff's former top aide, Susan Ralston, currently serves as the top aide to Karl Rove, one of the president's closest political advisers. Still, the White House has moved to put distance between Bush and Abramoff. On Wednesday, McClellan called Abramoff's actions "outrageous" and reiterated to reporters that Bush was not friends with the lobbyist and does not recall ever meeting him--though he said it was possible that Bush met Abramoff at a fund-raising function or at a White House holiday party. (According to McClellan, Abramoff was a guest at three White House Chanukah receptions.) When asked about Abramoff's contacts with other White House officials, McClellan said, "I don't keep track of staff."

In an interview last month, Bush described Abramoff as an "equal money dispenser, that he was giving money to people in both political parties." While Abramoff personally only wrote checks to Republicans, his clients gave to both parties, including Democratic Sens. Harry Reid, Mary Landrieu and Byron Dorgan. As more details emerge on what Abramoff has told federal prosecutors about his attempts to buy influence in Washington, Bush and other Republicans will likely make Abramoff's connections to Democrats a part of their regular talking points, especially as the midterm elections inch closer. That's because most recent polls show the public views corruption as a bipartisan problem. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll taken last month found that 49 percent of those surveyed said "most members of Congress are corrupt." When asked to identify corruption by party, 47 percent of those polled said "almost all" or "many" Republicans are corrupt, compared with 44 percent for Democrats.

War as Politics Judging by the twin speeches of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday, the big theme of the 2006 elections is the same as it was in 2002 and 2004. It's the war, stupid.

The only thing that changes is how you define "war." According to the veep, speaking to the conservative Heritage Foundation, it's essentially the same debate whether you're talking about the elections in Iraq or the NSA eavesdropping program. You're either with the administration or a naive fool who helps the terrorists. Or, as Cheney put it more elegantly, "Either we are serious about fighting this war or we are not. And as long as George W. Bush is president of the United States, we are serious--and this nation will not let down its guard."

That may be harsh, but it's the kind of political hardball that has proved effective for the GOP in the last two election cycles. The debate over the NSA and the Patriot Act is one the White House wants to have. Instead of hiding behind the highly classified nature of the NSA program, Bush and Cheney have come out swinging--against the original New York Times leak, against those who say Bush doesn't have the legal authority to conduct domestic wiretaps without warrants and, above all, against their political opponents. For most of 2005, Bush was forced to defend himself on Iraq against a faceless but deadly enemy: the insurgents. Now, in early 2006, he is reverting to his faithful strategy of painting Democrats as weak on defense and national security.

His opening was the obstruction of the Patriot Act's renewal, which Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid celebrated. To be fair, the Patriot Act renewal was also blocked by some Republicans. But the president is in no mood to be fair. You could see him relish the new dynamic at his end-of-year press conference in the East Room. Bush opened the session by saying that Reid had "boasted to a group of political supporters that the Senate Democrats had 'killed the Patriot Act'." He went on to say that his opponents needed to explain why they voted for the act in 2001 but now wanted to kill it--an unmistakable echo of how he skewered John Kerry on his war votes in 2004.

When one reporter asked if the Patriot Act vote reflected his loss of power and public support, Bush's face brightened and he flashed a smile. "If people want to play politics with the Patriot Act," he warned, before catching himself, "it's not in the best interests of the country." White House aides were actually looking forward to the Senate's six-month extension of the act because it pushed the debate closer to the midterm elections in November. (In the end, the House insisted on a one-month extension.)

Beyond the politics, Bush sees his war powers as justified both in law and in his analysis of the conflict itself. According to his aides, Bush believes this isn't a conflict where legal niceties apply. "As superficial or slogan-y as it might have sounded in the campaign, I do think there's a difference in the mindset of people in how you view this war," said one senior Bush aide, who spoke anonymously because of the classified nature of the programs being used to fight terrorists. "Is this a military engagement, with the very survival of many citizens at stake, or is it a law-enforcement operation that should be viewed with a particularly investigative approach? If you have one mindset you come to a different conclusion."

In many ways, Bush's biggest political problem is to remind people about 9/11 even as their memories fade--to make the case that the nation remains under threat at home, when the first war that comes to mind is several thousand miles away in Iraq. That's why 2006 is the year, once again, when the White House will try to merge all wars into one, as it fights on the very different battlefield of domestic politics.

A Footnote In last week's column we neglected to mention that the independent group Freedom House reported a decline last year in the number of countries it rates as "not free" from 49 to 45, the lowest number in more than a decade. The number of countries rated as "free" remained the same at 89.

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