The Washington Post this morning has what it clearly believes is a serious scoop and scandal: David Plouffe, President Obama's 2008 campaign manager and current senior adviser ("a key member of Obama’s inner circle, a confidant whose desk is just steps from the Oval Office"), was paid $100,000 in speaking fees "from an affiliate of a company doing business with Iran’s government." In 2010, a month before he began his expanded advisory role at the White House (and a month after his new job was announced), Plouffe delivered two speeches in Nigeria to a subsidiary of the MTN Group, a South Africa-based telecommunications company that at the time "had been in a widely reported partnership for five years with a state-owned Iranian telecommunications firm." Since then, "the U.S. government has become increasingly concerned that the Iranian government has used MTN operations or technology to help monitor dissidents."
The reason the Post sees this as some sort of a scandal and the reason it will resonate -- namely: the money Plouffe received is tainted by virtue of a connection to the Evil Persian Regime -- is frivolous and cynical, just part of the ongoing Washington fear-mongering orgy over Iran. As a private citizen, Plouffe had no legal constraints on his right to accept fees from Iran-connected companies. Moreover, conducting extensive business with worse regimes than Iran's is standard fare for both Serious Washington players and the U.S. Government alike. Beyond that, it's undoubtedly true, as Obama officials assert in the Post article, "that senior officials in the George W. Bush administration had been paid for speeches by companies doing business in Iran." And the U.S. is not at war with Iran -- at least not formally or legally -- so even direct connections, let alone less proximate ones like Plouffe's, are far from scandalous.
There is, to be sure, a valid hypocrisy angle to this revelation. The Obama administration is in a desperate race with the Romney campaign to show who can be "tougher" on Iran, by which it is meant: who can impose the greatest amount of suffering on the Iranian people through always-harsher sanctions, and who can threaten war most flamboyantly and frequently? Indeed, just last week, President Obama unilaterally "imposed new penalties on two foreign banks — one in China, another in Iraq — for allegedly acting as surrogates for Iranian financial institutions" and "also announced expanded restrictions on the purchase of Iranian petrochemical products." So the fact that Obama's 2008 campaign manager and one of his closest political aides -- less than two years ago -- was enriched by a firm that aids the same Iranian government is revealing indeed.
But the two reasons this story is so significant will likely be ignored; indeed, there were no mention of these implications at all in the Post article. First, it's just extraordinary how access-buying and influence-peddling in Washington are now so thinly-veiled. Second, it's equally remarkable how quickly and sleazily political operatives like Plouffe convert their political influence into massive personal wealth -- by the very same corporate interests against which (in Plouffe's case) they pretend to crusade.
Just think about what would motivate a company like this MTN affiliate to pay $100,000 to Obama's campaign manager and top aide. David Plouffe is 45 years old and has spent his entire adult life doing nothing other than working as a Democratic Party operative. At the age of 23, he worked on the 1990 campaign of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, and basically spent the next 20 years working for Democratic Party politicians (Bob Torricelli, Dick Gephardt) and institutions (the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) as a campaign operative and partisan apparatchik. The only exception is when he worked at consulting firms that worked for the campaigns of Democratic Party politicians.
Obviously, a Nigerian company like this MTN affiliate is not paying Plouffe a six-figure sum to bask in his profound wisdom and penetrating insights about their industry. Indeed, as the Post noted, "a video posted on YouTube shows that Plouffe delivered a generic talk about the role of the Internet in Obama’s 2008 victory." They're paying him in order to purchase the only thing of value which Plouffe has to offer a company like this: his political access, influence and connections in the Obama White House.
The reason MTN wants to purchase such influence is self-evident: the company faces potentially serious trouble in Washington for its connections to the Iranian regime. GOP Sen. Mark Kirk has argued that MTN should be "blacklisted" because of evidence that it "provided technology to Iran used to repress the Iranian people." And as the Post reports: "company representatives and South Africa’s ambassador to the United States have met with senior executive branch officials in efforts to stress the firm’s compliance with U.S. sanctions" and "there have been several meetings with multiple agencies to 'ensure that MTN’s operations in Iran remain fully compliant with U.S. sanctions'." The Post also notes the company has come under fire for its involvement in helping the Assad regime track Syrian dissidents. Paying $100,000 to one of Obama's closest confidants for nothing more than two speeches is a cheap way to buy good will and a grateful recipient of their largesse who exercises vast influence in the White House.
This sort of influence-peddling -- in which former or future Washington officials become personally enriched by the very corporations most invested in public policy -- is, needless to say, par for the course in Washington. Recall how Larry Summers -- in the year before he became Obama's top economic policy adviser -- was paid "more than $2.7 million in speaking fees by several troubled Wall Street firms and other organizations," including $45,000 for a November 12 Merrill Lynch appearance (8 days after Obama was elected and 10 days before Summers was named to the top economics post), as well as a $135,000 payment for a single-day visit to Goldman Sachs on April 16, 2008.
Or recall how Obama's Office of Management and Budget Chief, Peter Orszag, left his government job that had vast influence over corporate and banking policy and ran into the loving and grateful arms of Citigroup, which rewarded him with a multi-million-dollar compensation package. Chris Dodd, after unequivocally vowing not to lobby when he finished his 36-year-career in the Senate, ran to become Hollywood's chief lobbyist, where he receives millions of dollars to use his Washington influence on behalf of the entertainment industry. The Iranian terror group MeK has shuffled large sums of money in the form of "speaking fees" to a long bipartisan list of former Washington officials -- including numerous GOP officials who made their name crusading against Terrorism -- who then promptly became vocal and loyal advocates for the Terror group's cause.
The implications of all this extends far beyond mere corporate influence-buying. That's not even the most consequential aspect of this dynamic. The more insidious impact is cultural. What this does is it ensures that our highest political officials -- regardless of party or ideology -- maintain supreme fealty to those who can afford to personally enrich them. It converts almost every politician with any real influence in Washington into an entrenched and loyal member of the oligarchical class -- or, more accurately, a well-paid servant of oligarchs. That's what makes Plouffe's case so instructive.
I have no doubt that Plouffe thinks of himself as some sort of a populist, and when he first entered politics two long decades ago at the age of 23 working for the rather liberal Tom Harkin, those convictions were probably genuine. He also led Obama's 2008 populist campaign (which vowed to change the way and for whom Washington works, even as it was fueled by vast amounts of money from the banking industry). Yet look at how he has parlayed his role as Obama's campaign manager in order to enrich himself, and which parties are responsible for his newfound, substantial personal wealth.
Plouffe's financial disclosure form, filed in 2011 and reporting his 2010 income, shows that this MTN speaking gig -- while more lucrative than his standard speaking appearance (almost double his standard amount, in fact) -- is far from aberrational. In 2010 alone -- while he served as President of Obama for America, the group that represents devoted Obama followers -- he received a salary of $1.5 million from Plouffe Strategies, Ltd., a "management consulting firm." He also received multiple speaking fees of $24,000 each from numerous industry entities with direct business interests in the policies of the Obama White House (Fidelity Investment Services, Credit Union National Association, Oracle America, National Association for Home Care and Hospice, Adobe).
He also received fees for "consulting services" from corporations such as Boeing and GE (the amounts are not specified, merely indicated to be "in excess of $5,000"). Unsurprisingly, given all this, Plouffe now reports hundreds of thousands of dollars -- at least -- in assets in UBS Financial Services, the "US business of UBS's Wealth Management Americas segment" that "offers an array of investment products and services to affluent clients with more than $250,000 to invest."
In sum, David Plouffe -- who has spent his entire career working in Washington as a political operative -- has become a very rich man by converting into large piles of cash the only real asset he has: his influence in and access to the Obama White House and the Democratic Party. Every political operative and official in Washington -- from both parties -- knows that they can be similarly enriched by serving these same interests. A few noble exceptions to the side, this is a big part of the process by which the same factions continue to reign regardless of the outcome of elections. It's just a legalized system for putting public officials and their cronies on the payrolls of the highest bidder. Either that, or one can choose to believe that MTN was just so super-fascinated by David Plouffe's insights that they paid him $100,000 for two "generic" speeches about the Internet.
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Obama imposed the new punishments on Iran referenced above just days after signing the so-called U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, which "provides additional support for various defense systems as well as the extension of loan guarantees for Israel." AIPAC's current and past Board Chairmen, Lee Rosenberg and Howard Friedman, respectively, stood proudly behind the President -- or, more accurately, over him -- as he signed that new law (the above photograph showing the White House signing is the one AIPAC is currently displaying on its front page).