Paying to Play in the Conservative Movement

You probably have seen this article in the Politico today. Basically, the American Conservative Union, the organization that brings us CPAC each year, appears to have involved itself in a “pay to play” expedition with FedEx and UPS.

For the $2 million plus, ACU offered a range of services that included: “Producing op-eds and articles written by ACU’s Chairman David Keene and/or other members of the ACU’s board of directors. (Note that Mr. Keene writes a weekly column that appears in The Hill.)”The conservative group’s remarkable demand — black-and-white proof of the longtime Washington practice known as “pay for play” — was contained in a private letter to FedEx , which was provided to POLITICO.

You can read the whole thing here.First, throw no stones at Mike Allen. I know the inclination of some of you will be to attack the messenger and not the message. But what Mike Allen is reporting on is a dirty little secret among a number of organizations, both right and left, in Washington, D.C.Second, for perspective on the FedEx v. UPS fight and why ACU should have gotten behind FedEx without charging a penny see George Will.The swamp is not getting drained because the corruption and money is damning up the drain. (spelling was intentional)And it is not just the American Conservative Union. Left (I’m looking at you MoveOn.org) and right, our progressive and conservative “grass roots” organizations in Washington, DC are a hotbed of “pay to play” scandals waiting to boil over.Before you decide to purge me from the conservative movement, read on to find out what I’m talking about.Let me be up front — I like the organizations on the right about which I am writing and have many friends involved with them and on their boards. This post will not make me popular, but it needs to be said.The American Conservative Union partly violates “Erick’s Rule of Stable Organizations”. To remind you, the rule is simple: if the leader of the organization were to die tonight, would the organization be able to continue on tomorrow?I say it will be difficult. Like Paul Weyrich’s organization, when Dave Keene kicks the bucket ACU is going to collapse like a house of cards. Unlike Weyrich’s, ACU can be restructured and reinvigorated given the ancillary involvement of people like Tom Winter, Morton Blackwell, Larry Hart, Lisa de Pasquale, and others. But it won’t be the same. Let’s remember that ACU was founded in 1964, but Dave Keene has been the Chairman since 1984.Dave Keene is not just the leader of the organization, he is intrinsically linked to the organization given his years of service there. When Dave Keene lends his name to a project, whether right or wrong, the implicit understanding is that ACU is backing the project.It was, you will recall, this method by which Dave Keene and ACU helped sink Pat Toomey’s bid against Arlen Specter the last time. ACU stayed out of the race, but Dave Keene made sure everyone knew he was supporting Arlen Specter and that he was the head of the American Conservative Union.So then we come to this:

ACU’s executive vice president, Dennis Whitfield, said that neither the group nor David Keene, the chairman, took any money from UPS. Whitfield said the group has never received a response to its original proposal to FedEx. He said Keene endorsed the second letter as an individual, even though the letter bore the logo of ACU.“Our position hasn’t changed,” said Whitfield, who was a deputy secretary of labor in the Reagan administration. “It won’t change. I am fundamentally, philosophically opposed to doing what the Obama administration wants to do [to FedEx], and so is our organization.

It’s the same with me and RedState. I am more and more mindful — and I used to be oblivious to the fact — that when I endorse a candidate or support a position, the implication is that RedState does too. In fact, it is why I expressly refuse to endorse a lot of things I’m asked to endorse. I know people don’t want my endorsement so much as they want the implication of RedState’s endorsement.Let’s be clear: Dave Keene and ACU knew the game they were playing because I’m comfortable saying they’ve done it before.Just as troubling, Americans for Tax Reform appears to be in on the game.

ACU Chairman David A. Keene was one of eight conservative leaders who signed a letter to FedEx Chairman Frederick W. Smith, a champion of capitalism who in the past has been a favorite of conservatives.The letter accuses FedEx of “falsely and disingenuously” labeling the rules change a “bailout” for UPS, since FedEx would become subject to the same arduous union structure.The letter is also signed by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who is also on ACU’s board.

Putting it plainly, there is no justifiable support for UPS’s position against FedEx in this. For Grover Norquist and Dave Keene to say FedEx’s position is ““falsely and disingenuously” labeling the rules change a “bailout” for UPS, since FedEx would become subject to the same arduous union structure,” is itself false and disingenuous.Both organizations repeatedly take the position that once a tax break even for a single company putting that company at a competitive advantage is removed from the tax code, that is a tax increase that should be opposed. Similarly, here, FedEx has a competitive advantage through its own smarts that the government seeks to take away. ACU and ATR are supporting the government and unions against FedEx.The whole thing is noxious.From here on out, if not before, everyone on the right and left can legitimately ask if money changed hands before ACU, ATR, and a host of other organizations took a position. Through their actions not through coverage of their actions, they have made it a legitimate question.David Keene and Grover Norquist are, whether they like it or not, intrinsically linked to their respective organizations. If they come out in support of a particular position, people believe that their organizations support that position too.Keene and Norquist do not have to say publicly that their pockets were lined to take a particular position. But in doing so, their organizations are linked. And they and everyone else know it.This is happening more and more in Washington. At a time when every conservative is under the hot light of media and Democrat scrutiny, the movement leaders cannot afford to do stupid stuff like this.When we cannot trust the supposedly leaders of our movement to do the right thing without cash, we have lost the moral clarity we need in the fight. Consequently, we must either encourage these organizations to reform themselves and stop these pay to play games, or we must burn the organizations to the ground and start over. The rot and termites cannot be left to destroy us all.Let me leave you with the words of my very good friend Ben Domenech. Last year, in the Washington Times, he wrote:

conservatives in the post-Bush era must acknowledge a difficult truth: if conservatism is to have any future, it is as a movement that does not put too much faith in the individuals who claim to espouse shared ideology. Unearned trust begets scandal and betrayal, and the coalition that won in 1980 and 1994 will only survive as a coherent movement in this century if it embraces the reality that conservatism is larger than the politicians who invoke its principles.

And we need to embrace a conservatism that can be expressed without the weight of dollar bills first pressing into pockets.