Conservative Pay to Play

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 8:51 AM PDT

It's not just an Illinois thing. Politico has a scoop revealing that the American Conservative Union, a prominent rightwing player in Washington, tried to sell its influence for big bucks:

The American Conservative Union asked FedEx for a check for $2 million to $3 million in return for the group’s endorsement in a bitter legislative dispute, then flipped and sided with UPS after FedEx refused to pay.

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.

The letter exposes the practice by some political interest groups of taking stands not for reasons of pure principle, as their members and supporters might assume, but also in part because a sponsor is paying big money.

This is a big deal. The ACU mounts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a signficant gathering of thousands of conservative activists in Washington, where GOP presidential wannabes often work the crowd. And Keene is a go-to pundit of the right—and a much-used source for political journalists seeking guidance on what's going on within conservative circles. He has always sold himself as a conservative first, a Republican second. But now it seems that he is just selling himself, period.

Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey is not happy about this. In an item titled "ACU puts conservatism up for sale," he huffs,

When we said that conservatives needed to do a better job selling the philosophy of limited government and fiscal responsibility, this isn’t exactly what we meant

He continues:

The range of services offered [by ACU] calls into question the integrity of the entire organization. Does the ACU normally offer its public commentary for rent?  Who else has paid for endorsements in David Keene’s columns, or those of the ACU board members? It would be also fair to ask Keene or the board knew of [this] proposal before it went out, although it would be difficult to imagine that Whitfield could have offered so much in services for that much compensation without having approval from Keene and/or the board in the first place.  The ACU’s about-face on the issue right after FedEx’s refusal would be difficult to explain as well.

Though the ACU has put out a response to the Politico story (kudos to Mike Allen for breaking it), Morrissey still is not satisfied. Leave it to the ACU to make the Washington Post look good.

And another thing: Politico notes that with this exposé it has uncovered evidence of the longtime Washington practice of pay to play. But it should be noted that the pay-to-players of this sort usually are on the right side of the fence. Remember Armstrong Williams? The ideological advocates of the right in Washington tend to be tied more to lobbying and influence-peddling than those of the left. Jack Abramoff, for instance, used several conservative policy groups to launder his ill-gotten treasure.

Is anyone at the Campaign for America's Future, which runs the liberal counterpart to CPAC, selling his or her access and influence for millions of bucks to corporations? Don't make me laugh. True, there are plenty of former Democratic officials and staffers who have left public service for private profit as lobbyists, and some simultaneously associate with policy shops. But there has long been a tighter nexus on the right between for-profit influence-wielders and for-ideology policy advocates. ACU is proof of that.

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