If you want insights into the workings on Capitol Hill, the collapse of the last Republican majority, and the machinations of K Street, you should see “Casino Jack,” the new documentary about the jailed former lobbyist Jack Abramoff that opens Friday at the E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row. And if you're a liberal looking for intellectual snack food, the film offers a bonus: lots of lazy digs at the philosophy of limited government.
“Casino Jack” is good entertainment. It takes good material — money, power, hypocrisy, double-dealing, murder and cocky bad guys who eventually get caught — and pieces it together well.
But documentaries aren't just supposed to tell tales — they are supposed to make points. In the Abramoff case, there were plenty of points to make: Lobbyists have too much influence in Washington. Fundraising plays an outsize role in Congress. Power corrupts.
But the the-game-is-rigged theme wasn't enough for liberal filmmaker Alex Gibney. He drilled down deeper in search of more explosive stuff that would fit his worldview: The Republican majority by 2000 had become utterly servile to fundraising. Abramoff was a crook, and he pulled the strings in the GOP caucus.
But even those points were too broad to make the indictment that Gibney was seeking. Somehow, the story of Abramoff using his fundraising and political connections to make hundreds of millions of dollars off of Indian tribes needed to excoriate the whole notion of free markets.
So Gibney brought in author Thomas Frank.
Frank, who appears more in the film than any other interview subject, has made a career of connecting dots that don't really connect, but doing it in a way so pleasing to the prejudices and the egos of many on the Left that he never gets called out for it.
The liberal columnist for the Wall Street Journal (he comes across as a likable nerd in the documentary) is living proof that with a little effort and a lot of cognitive dissonance, you can confirm any bias you want. Here's a gem from his recent book, “The Wrecking Crew”: “What makes a place a free-market paradise is not the absence of government; it is the capture of government by business interests.”
This is Frank's favorite trick: misdefine “free market” to mean corporate welfare or something else that's both bad and related to money, and then wale away at free markets until you justify your preferred big-government policies. Reason magazine writer Jesse Walker aptly summarized “The Wrecking Crew”: “Under Bush, Frank points out, federal spending has exploded and corruption has oozed from official Washington. Obviously, we're watching the free market in action, because businesses benefit! Really.”
I have a name for this willful and specious conflation: “Franking.” And “Casino Jack” alternates between edifying the viewer and Franking him. I'd accuse the filmmakers of sleight-of-hand, but the Franking is far too transparent to deserve that label.
For instance, the film claims that the drug lobby's aim in the 2003 Medicare debate was “keeping the government out of the process.” That's an odd description of a bill that creates a new government entitlement that spent $49.3 billion in 2008.
When speaking about “Wall Street's deregulation agenda,” the camera zooms in on the headquarters of Freddie Mac, a government-sponsored enterprise that thrived on an implicit guarantee from taxpayers.
The shame is that the filmmakers, had they skipped the Franking, could have made some important points, and in the process exposed the hypocrisy of the Republican politicians and activists covered in the film. The film aptly nails the moralistic pretensions of Ralph Reed using anti-gambling arguments to shut down an Indian casino — at the request of a competing casino. But if Gibney had conceded that Tom DeLay and Abramoff trampled their own free-market principles in order to advance earmarks, expand corporate welfare and block casinos — well, that would have emasculated the film's attack on the free market.
Gibney, in a January interview on the left-wing show “Democracy Now!,” made his thesis explicit. More than a lobbyist, Gibney said, “Jack Abramoff is better understood as a political zealot,” who subscribes to “a radical agenda for extreme free-market views.”
The tragedy is that pinning corruption on the free market provides cover to the regulatory robber barons and subsidy sucklers who pervert public policy for private profit. If “free-market ideology” is the root of corruption, those lobbying big government to increase the size of government get to walk free — all the way to the bank.
Timothy P. Carney, the Examiner's lobbying editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes an op-ed column that appears on Friday.