Corporate Rogues Count on the G.O.P.

The myth of the moment is a recycled Naderite cliché, clung to by Republicans as they are inundated by the corporate crime wave. The G.O.P. may seem compromised by its twinship with Big Business, they whisper, but the Democratic Party is no better. It’s the kind of argument that also appeals to media commentators who hope to demonstrate their “objectivity,” which begins to suggest how shallow it is. As a matter of history or as a guide to the current debate, the notion of partisan parity is about as informative (and as accurate) as a WorldCom balance sheet.

Like most myths, however, this one is not wholly baseless. Its promoters point to the Fortune 500 funding that has flowed into Democratic campaigns, and to the close relationships some Democratic politicians have cultivated with business executives and lobbyists. More than a few Democratic legislators have grown too comfortable with corporate interests, particularly those that dominate their home states or districts-such as Senator Joseph Lieberman and his friends in Connecticut’s insurance industry, or Senator Charles Schumer and his supporters on Wall Street, or Representative John Dingell and Michigan’s auto makers.

Yet regarding most of the broad issues that affect corporate America, those same Democrats tend to favor strong environmental and consumer regulation. They are more likely than Republicans to be skeptics, not supplicants, in their attitudes toward business.

Even by the simple measure of money, the distance between the two parties remains enormous. The funding contributed by business to Democrats is a fraction of what those same interests regularly give to Republicans, for one obvious reason: Republican policy is utterly reliable in its deference to their demands. This week’s news of revenue “enhancement” by Merck & Co. offered an indirect reminder of those basic facts. Merck’s political contributions are heavily Republican, and its C.E.O. was selected by President Bush to chair the administration’s transition panel on health care.

The enduring partisan difference, which dates back to the founding of the Securities and Exchange Commission by F.D.R., can be seen today in the Democratic proposals to reform corporate practices, and the resistance to those reforms by the Republican leadership. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, the tough, honest Democrat who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, is pushing through stringent new restrictions on the wayward accounting giants.

Sniping opposition to the Sarbanes bill is being led by Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican and Enron spouse. Mr. Gramm was responsible for blocking reforms sought by the Clinton administration that might have prevented some of the nation’s current distress. Behind Mr. Gramm stands Trent Lott, the Senate Minority Leader, one of whose most generous Mississippi constituents is WorldCom.

The relationship between Mr. Lott and former WorldCom chief Bernie Ebbers aptly represents the larger corporate symbiosis with Republicans. Three years ago, Mr. Ebbers chaired a gala evening at the Kennedy Center that raised some $8 million for a Trent Lott Leadership Institute to be built at Ole Miss, the Senator’s alma mater. WorldCom also donated at least a million dollars to this worthy edifice of higher learning, where aspiring young leaders presumably learn to orate, count votes and present their palms to be greased.

So far, no group of executives has taken up a collection to construct a monument to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on the plains of South Dakota. There is, however, an outfit called the Club for Growth that raised at least $500,000 from high-flying New York financiers to smear Mr. Daschle with negative TV advertising in his home state.

Corporate ideologues don’t want Democrats running any branch of government, because Democrats tend to question and even obstruct their brilliant plans to enrich themselves and impoverish the rest of us.

If Mr. Bush now poses as the scourge of corporate crooks, his sudden conversion is attributable to pressure from the other side of the aisle. He now proposes to send a few more white-collar thieves to prison, assuming that prosecutors and juries can sort out black and white from gray better than the President was able to do during his curious business career. He also proclaims his support for a stronger, better-funded S.E.C., as if he and his aides had not been trying to gut that essential agency since the day they took office.

These positions are a reversal for Mr. Bush. For two years, he pursued the program that those benefactors desired, deregulating industry, repealing corporate taxes, ignoring business abuses and generally trusting their “better nature” rather than policing their baser impulses. Why not? They were always nice to him.

Only the fear of Democratic victory next November is obliging Mr. Bush to pretend that he is really Teddy Roosevelt. Don’t be surprised if he reverts to Warren Harding the morning after Election Day.

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