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msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/4/2006 1:12:00 PM ET 2006-01-04T18:12:00

Forget the black hat. Everybody here is obsessed with Jack Abramoff’s gangster-like attire as he came out of the federal courthouse. But the thing that jumps out at me is the figure $20,194,000. If I read the fed’s plea-agreement papers correctly, that’s the amount of cold cash that the Republican lobbyist siphoned from Indian tribes and stashed in his secret accounts.

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You may not believe this, but in this city, that is an unheard of amount of money for a lobbyist to haul in — and the number itself signifies a troubling change in the nature of life in the capital of our country.

The denizens of D.C. deal in trillions of dollars. But they are YOUR dollars: tax receipts and federal spending. Lawyers and lobbyists here do well. Still, they haven’t generally been in the same league as money-power types in, say, New York or Los Angeles. This was a city in which official position meant more than a plush vacation home; in which a Ph.D. or J.D. meant more than a BMW. Traditionally, the locals have been more like Vegas blackjack dealers than the greedy people sitting on the other side of the table.

Well, Abramoff jumped the table — and the result will be the biggest influence-peddling scandal to hit Washington in recent times: the Scandal of the Poisoned BlackBerrys, which sent and received e-mails that now will make a gripping saga of greed in action.

And just who are the political losers and winners? There are more of the former than the latter.

LOSERS

Members of Congress: Lawmakers fingered by the feds in Abramoff probe, or who received campaign contributions through the networking of Abramoff, and who are facing re-election this November. Voters tend to like, or at least tolerate, their local congressman, and assume that they aren’t part of the corrupt world of Washington — until the member’s name surfaces in a context like this one.

The Republican Party: The semi-conventional wisdom here is as follows: Some Democrats are likely to be stained by ties to Jack Abramoff; polls show that the public has a plague-on-both-your-houses attitude toward wrongdoing in Washington; therefore, the GOP won’t be hurt in November. I don’t buy it. Republicans are the incumbent party in the Congress. They are led by a less-than-popular president in the traditionally weak sixth year of his presidency.

The DeLay-Hastert Crowd: Rep. Tom DeLay, given his close ties to Abramoff, can forget about getting his job as House Majority Leader back. At least that’s what one GOP backbencher, who insisted on anonymity for now, told me on Tuesday. “We just can’t afford to have him in such a visible position anymore.” DeLay, facing state charges in Texas, could have a tough re-election campaign, if he gets that far. Semi-figurehead Speaker Denny Hastert, installed in the job by DeLay, hastily returned all of his Abramovian campaign contributions, but that only served to underscore his visibility. Look for a major shake-up in the GOP House leadership, perhaps soon.

The Bush-Rove White House: No one is alleging, and I think it is unlikely, that Boy Genius Karl Rove knew in any detail what kind of crook Abramoff really was. On the other hand, Rove was, and in remains — unless he is indicted in the Plame case, the puppet master of Republican Washington. He shares operational and attitudinal roots with Abramoff and the other hustlers in the baby boomer generation of Republican strategists. Over the years, as Rove has needed to “move” legislation — and make no mistake, he has been the guy guiding that process — he has called on the entire GOP lobbying establishment in D.C. to help. The process of building that machinery began long before Rove came to town with Bush. DeLay, Abramoff, Grover Norquist and others began assembling it after the GOP took the House in 1994, demanding that corporate types hire Republicans — and not just any Republicans, THEIR Republicans. Rove then took command of that vehicle when he moved to the White House in 2001. Rove will have a hard time claiming now that he didn’t know how the machinery worked, especially since Abramoff himself became a major contributor to Bush’s re-election campaign.

WINNERS

Third-party reform movement: If Sen. John McCain doesn’t win the Republican presidential nomination, I could see him leading an independent effort to “clean up” the capital as a third-party candidate. Having been seared by his own touch with this type of controversy (the Keating case in the '80s, which was as important an experience to him as Vietnam), McCain could team up with a Democrat, say, Sen. Joe Lieberman. If they could assemble a cabinet in waiting — perhaps Wes Clark for defense, Russ Feingold for justice, Colin Powell for anything —  they could win the 2008 election going away.

Public Integrity Section: The Abramoff case is proof, at least so far, that it’s possible for lifers in the bureaucracy to still have a corrective influence on politics run amok in the capital. The case has been handled from the start by professionals who do this kind of work out of a sense of loyalty and idealism. We’ll see if Attorney General Alberto Gonzales leaves them alone if they start working their way toward the White House.   

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