In little more than a month, the mainstream media tells us, the city of Chicago has plunged from the proud heights of victory to the depths of shame. Barack Obama, its favorite son, captured the presidency with high-minded talk of reform, only to have Rod Blagojevich, the governor of Illinois, turn the nation's stomach with foul-mouthed dreams -- as alleged in an FBI affidavit -- of selling off the president-elect's Senate seat.
So why are some of my liberal friends in Chicago giddy? Because they've always disliked Mr. Blagojevich, a man who owes his career partly to family connections and partly to being the lesser of two evils. Because they have no use for some of the other bright lights of local Democratic politics -- from patronage hacks to the family that managed to pass the presidency of the Cook County Board from father to son. Because they hope U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald goes right on indicting, even if the biggest trophies on his wall turn out to be local Democrats.
To understand their reaction, take a look through the 76-page affidavit against Mr. Blagojevich. As I was choking my way through this remarkable document, I happened to spy my copy of Reinventing Government, the old handbook of the Clinton presidency, and its subtitle leaped out at me: "How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector."
Lord, is it ever! Not in the well-meaning ways that book's authors intended, of course, but Mr. Blagojevich is nothing if not entrepreneurial. If the affidavit is to be believed, the man intuits the cold ways of the market as well as any Nobel Prize-winning economist from Hyde Park. A seat in the U.S. Senate, in his immortal words, "is a [very!] valuable thing, you don't just give it away for nothing."
The schemes Blago allegedly invented to "monetize" his public authority, while never rising to the sophistication of, say, a credit default swap, still showed a cunning that would command the respect of any Wall Street Ponzi master. The governor allegedly speculated about trading the Senate seat for the job of energy secretary because, as "Deputy Governor A" helpfully informed him, that was the cabinet position "that makes the most money" -- by which he almost certainly did not mean that it carried the greatest salary. Blago also apparently cooked up a plan in which a labor organization would create a highly paid position for him in exchange for the seat.
The governor's fondest idea was allegedly to trade the Senate seat for a 501(c)4 organization that he believed the country's best-known billionaires would graciously fund and that he would get to lead. And why not? Washington is filled with advocacy groups funded by the very wealthy that sometimes appear to be little more than retirement homes for political favorites.
The right has been gloating about the alleged Blagojevich villainy because it interrupts, in spectacular fashion, a long stretch in which most of the Beltway scandal-makers had an "R" after their names. Besides, this would-be mega-grafter comes from the same city and the same party as the hated Mr. Obama; it's just a matter of time until the right blurs the two into one.
What outsiders seldom grasp about Illinois politics, though, is how bipartisan, how apolitical, the whole reeking thing is. John Kass of the Chicago Tribune, a connoisseur of the region's corruption, refers to it as "the Combine." Republicans run the machine when it's their turn, and then hand the wheel over to Democrats when the public has had enough.
With the exception of the labor scheme, none of Blago's ideas were identifiably liberal. And consider the particular political situation in which he flourished. Campaign contributions are basically unlimited in Illinois, making possible the deals he allegedly dreamed up, each of them so outrageous they reminded Fitzgerald of "a salesman meeting his annual sales target."
Which points us, finally, to the defining idea of machine politics: the conception of the state as a business in which every public function is for sale. "It is good business that causes bad government," a reformer told muckraker Lincoln Steffens over a century ago. When George W. Bush announced that "government should be market-based," he was merely applying an ideological gloss to this ancient and supremely bad idea.
The Blagojevich scandal is widely seen as a heavy blow for the incoming administration, but in fact it's good for Mr. Obama that it happened early on. Blago's alleged acts bring us face-to-face with what's wrong with American politics, and this time it can't just be brushed off as part of a Republican "culture of corruption." It goes far deeper than that. The rot is structural; it is trans-partisan; and it stinks to high heaven.
So let President-elect Obama recruit a thousand Patrick Fitzgeralds. Let him turn them loose on Chicago, on Washington, and on every corner of public life where the market-based ideal still survives. Sic semper tyrannis.
Thomas Frank's column, The Tilting Yard, appears every Wednesday at OpinionJournal.com
Also in Opinion Journal:
R. Glenn Hubbard and Christopher J. Mayer: Low-Interest Mortgages Are the Answer
Review & Outlook: Wait-Listed to Death
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