Coming up Enron

No matter what the issue, politicians are throwing around the name of the bankrupt energy giant in a crude attempt to score political points.

Published February 20, 2002 11:13PM (EST)

As the Enron scandal progresses, opportunistic politicians are trying their best to turn the company's name into political shorthand to discredit just about anything. From Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who compared Bush's budget proposal to Enron, to Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who likened the administration's nuclear weapons policy to Enron's accounting practices, the company's name has become an all-purpose attack. Enron's transformation into a political weapon illustrates how sound-bite strategies discrediting opponents by association are increasingly replacing substantive debate over issues of national importance.

In the wake of Enron's collapse, pundits immediately went into full scandal mode, alleging corruption in vague and unsubstantiated ways. Politicians, however, remained relatively quiet until mid-January, when the next and more destructive phase of the Enron association game began. Taking their talking points from their counterparts in the media -- a wait-and-see strategy that has become increasingly popular -- Democratic politicians came out hurling the Enron name at the Bush administration and its policies.

On Jan. 13, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri told the Washington Post that Democrats planned to attack Bush's economic policies with the term "Enronomics" (a phrase that apparently originated in a Dec. 14 article on the Democratic Underground Web site). Palmieri claimed the term illustrates how "[Bush] cooks the books, uses rosy economic scenarios and doesn't worry enough about the human side of the ledger ... It was so hard to explain it before. Now you can explain it." While the exact phrase has not caught on, Democrats are nonetheless running a carefully orchestrated campaign to attach "Enron" to fiscal policies they disagree with.

Not wanting to cede the initiative to the left, conservatives launched a counterattack with spin of their own. On Jan. 14, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial that claimed "the ultimate lesson may turn out to be that Enron was able to play fast and loose in a financial boom and Clintonian moral climate, and was called to account in a recession when the moral climate has turned Ashcroftian." This is public relations rhetoric at its finest: The editorial creates a negative association between the company's actions and Clinton, and, by contrast, casts a positive light on the actions of the "Ashcroftian" Bush administration. What exactly those "moral climates" are and how they led to Enron's misdeeds is left to the imagination of the reader.

From there it was a very short leap for politicians and commentators from both sides of the aisle to begin wielding the company's name protect their pet programs and attack their opposition. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, suggested that a proposal to cut funding for a music education program run by the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame would amount to "taking from the children to give to the Enrons of this world." Enron has found its way into just about every running political debate, from globalization and the Bush administration's secrecy to Amtrak and Social Security.

In political parlance, "Enron" has now become a verb and an adjective. In late January, Daschle, discussing Social Security, told a press conference that "I don't want to Enron the people of the United States. I don't want to see them holding the bag at the end of the day just like Enron employees have held the bag." A few days later Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future issued a response to Bush's State of the Union address, saying that the administration had proposed "an Enron stimulus package" and an "Enron energy plan." And last Friday, Andrew Biggs of the Cato Institute claimed that "Social Security is already 'Enron-ed'" and suggested that "doing nothing allows the system to go broke. And that's the real 'Enronization' of Social Security."

In short, Enron's name has become a substitute for real debate over political priorities. Why bother to argue about why you disagree with Bush's budget priorities when you can just compare them to Enron? The word "Enron" doesn't explain anything -- it's simply a crude effort to substitute negative associations for reasoned argument.

A recent exchange reported by the Washington Times illustrates just how quickly both Republicans and Democrats are marching toward substance-free politics. Daschle said on Jan. 24, "I think that we are slowly 'Enron-izing' the economy, 'Enron-izing' the budget. We are taking the same approach Enron used in sapping retirement funds and providing them to those at the very top. That's exactly what Enron did." The response from conservatives? Republican Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott claimed such rhetoric was "ridiculous," and suggested "Senator Daschle is trying to 'Daschle-ize' the budget by basically saying really what we need to do is less tax cuts, more tax increases and more spending."

Daschle-ize vs. Enron-ize: Welcome to the nonsensical catchphrase politics of Election 2002.

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By Bryan Keefer

Bryan Keefer is the co-editor of Spinsanity.

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