You can smell it in the air. Like a fresh Texas oilfield, the partisan sweat glands are pumping. Americans are mad, and somebody better pay for this.
I say, bring it on.
The time is right for a partisan uproar. But for my money--and yes, I owned shares in a mutual fund that lost on Enron, so I'm an aggrieved party--this is a case where there are as many shortsighted temptations as virtuous opportunities. Democrats may call the mess cronyism and grab a few swing voters here and there by trying to place Enron at the doorstep of Kenneth Lay's favorite politician, George W. Bush. But there is something bigger at play.
Remember, Al Gore didn't lose in 2000 because of the Supreme Court or disputed ballots in Florida. He lost because of Ralph Nader and 2.9 million voters, nearly 97,488 of them in Florida, who felt things were out of kilter between citizens and their government.
Republican ambitions cannot ignore the discontent either. They won't get far with their rising cries, "The Democrats cozied up to Enron too." A Clinton rerun isn't going to draw many legitimately dismayed Americans into the shelter of the GOP tent.
If we're lucky, Enron will grow beyond being a scramble for the scraps off the carcass. The result of that will only be some new and incomprehensibly complicated accounting rules, a halfhearted reform of campaign financing, a year of finger-pointing and perhaps the welcome sight of a few spit-shined millionaires standing tall in court.
We'd be many times better off, those of us who aren't lobbyists or lawyers, if the Democrats had the guts to draw the Republicans into a face-off over principles. Of course this would require Democrats to find some. But it would be about time. What does the Democratic Party stand for, anyway, beyond GOP-lite or Bush-wrong?
The business pages show that investors have been spooked about high-flying conglomerates of all stripes. As usual, people are ahead of their government. But is it enough to say, see, market forces will take care of things? Or should we return to the founding principle of free enterprise, which is, that self-governance legitimately places the interest of consumers ahead of desires of producers?
It was none other than economic theorist Adam Smith, hero to conservatives, who warned that a nation built "for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers" would not be in the interest of shopkeepers but merely "a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers."
Surely, Democrats cannot remain too timid to engage voters in a debate about the nation's domestic purpose and how to achieve it. And there is no irony in noting that such a foursquare confrontation also might prompt Republicans to reflect on a dogma that sought to free Americans from the heavy hand of self-serving government only to put us under the heel of self-serving corporations.
Enron is a scandal about ideals gone awry, about the dangers of forgoing the protections of checks and balances in public affairs. Bush's warm connections to Enron are fair game, but it's pipsqueak politics to leave matters there. And Democrats, given their recent record, have little standing when it comes to unsavory associations.
The president deserves the respect accorded a family that has devoted itself to public service like few others, father, son and brother. He rates credit for directness. He's not for energy companies in some secretive fashion. He's for them openly. Far from shy, he's unabashedly for unrestrained business, Wild West entrepreneurship, wealth without limits, resource development and individual competition.
Until we know differently, we should take him at his word when he says he was outraged by Kenneth Lay's sneaky dealings. Few things sting a proud man like being embarrassed by a friend. But we should also listen to his words when he, on the same day, goes to bat for the very ideal that encouraged Enron to happen: That government is some "wacky" (his word) force and that business-still-knows-best in domestic affairs.
"And we don't need a lot of regulation either," he told machinery company workers in West Virginia. "The federal government ought to be wise about how we enforce standards but not over-regulate those who are trying to create work."
In any country, at any time, a company might cook its books. But only here in this heyday of government-bashers and deregulation mania could we have Enron.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times