End of the Revolution
Sex, lies and power games are just the latest symptoms of a Republican party adrift from its ideals
By KAREN TUMULTY | October 8, 2006
Every revolution begins with the power of an idea and ends when clinging to power is the only idea left. The epitaph for the movement that started when Newt Gingrich and his forces rose from the back bench of the House chamber in 1994 may well have been written last week in the same medium that incubated it: talk radio. On conservative commentator Laura Ingraham's show, the longest-serving Republican House Speaker in history explained why he would not resign despite a sex scandal that has produced a hail of questions about his leadership and the failure to stop one of his members from cyberstalking teenage congressional pages. "If I fold up my tent and leave," Dennis Hastert told her, "then where does that leave us? If the Democrats sweep, then we'd have no ability to fight back and get our message out."
That quiet admission may have been the most damning one yet in the unfolding scandal surrounding Florida Congressman Mark Foley: holding on to power has become not just the means but also the end for the onetime reformers who in 1994 unseated a calcified and corrupted Democratic majority. Washington scandals, it seems, have been following a Moore's law of their own, coming at a faster clip every time there is a shift in control. It took 40 years for the House Democrats to exhaust their goodwill. It may take only 12 years for the Republicans to get there.
If you think politicians clinging to power isn't big news, then you may have forgotten the pure zeal of Gingrich's original revolutionaries. They swept into Washington on the single promise that they would change Capitol Hill. And for a time, they did. Vowing to finish what Ronald Reagan had started, they stood firm on the three principles that defined conservatism: fiscal responsibility, national security and moral values. Reagan, who had a few scandals in his day, didn't always follow his own rules. But his doctrine turned out to be a good set of talking points for winning elections in a closely divided country, and the takeover was completed with the inauguration of George W. Bush as President.
But after controlling both houses of Congress and the White House for most of Bush's six years in office, the party has a governing record that has come unmoored from those Grand Old Party ideals. The exquisite political machinery that aces the elections has begun to betray the platform. To win votes back home, lawmakers have been spending taxpayer money like sailors on leave, producing the biggest budget deficits in U.S. history. And the party's approach to national security has taken the country into a war that most Americans now believe was a mistake and that the government's own intelligence experts say has shaped "a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives."
One of the problems is that after the Republicans got into power, the system began to change them, not just the other way around. Among the first promises the G.O.P. majority broke was the setting of term limits. Their longtime frustrations in the minority didn't necessarily make them any better at reaching across the aisle either. Compromise, that most central of congressional checks and balances, has been largely replaced by a kind of calculated cussedness that has left the G.O.P. isolated and exposed in times of crisis.
The current crisis arrived with a sex scandal that has muddied one of the G.O.P.'s few remaining patches of moral high ground: its defense of family values and personal accountability.
Although Hastert and other Republican leaders say they heard last fall about the "overfriendly" approaches of a not-so-secretly-gay Congressman to a 16-year-old former page—both majority leader John Boehner and campaign chairman Tom Reynolds say they brought it up with Hastert last spring—they insist they never imagined anything like the more graphic instant messages that subsequently came to light. Boehner spokesman Kevin Madden said his boss was told only that there had been "contact" between Foley and a page, and that his knowledge of even that much came from a fleeting conversation on the House floor. But shouldn't someone have got chills at learning that a 52-year-old man had sent a teenager a creepy e-mail asking for a "pic of you"? Certainly the page understood what the e-mail meant, which is why he forwarded it in August 2005 to the office of Louisiana Congressman Rodney Alexander, who had sponsored him for the page program and who was alarmed enough to take his concern to Boehner. "This freaked me out," the teenager wrote. "Sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick."�
The House response was political from the start. Last November, Jeff Trandahl, then clerk of the House, told John Shimkus, the Republican head of the board that oversees the page program, about the less incriminating e-mails. But nobody bothered to inform the board's lone Democrat. Shimkus and Trandahl appear to have done nothing more than give Foley a private warning. When Alexander expanded the circle of those aware of the e-mails the following spring, one of the two people he chose to loop in was Reynolds, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose job is managing the election. Foley wasn't even stripped of his co-chairmanship of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.
Even after a batch of truly sleazy instant messages was discovered by abc News, Reynolds' chief of staff Kirk Fordham, who was also a former aide to Foley, tried to solve the political problem by attempting to talk the network out of publishing the worst of the messages. Fordham resigned last week, but he didn't go quietly, the way House leaders had hoped. On his way out, he threw fuel on the political fire by announcing that he had warned Hastert's staff of Foley's "inappropriate behavior" at least three years ago—a charge that Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, denied.
All this suggests that the Republican leaders were motivated much more by fear of electoral fallout than concern for the young pages in their care. And if they were worried that the revelation would hurt their chances of holding on to the House, they turned out to be right. Before the scandal broke, they were beginning to believe that the clouds were finally clearing for them. Their fabled get-out-the-vote and fund-raising operations were nearing full stride just as gas prices were dropping and the national debate was refocusing on their home-court issue of terrorism.
It seems likely that the party will instead need to reckon with sex and scandal throughout the final weeks of the election. As conservative George F. Will, writing in the Washington Post last week, put it, the Foley affair is "a maraschino cherry atop the Democrats' delectable sundae of Republican miseries." In the latest Time poll, conducted the week after the news broke, nearly 80% of respondents said they were aware of the scandal, and two-thirds of them were convinced that Republican leaders had tried to cover it up. Among the registered voters who were polled, 54% said they would be more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress, compared with 39% who favored the Republican—nearly a perfect reversal of the 51%-40% advantage the G.O.P. enjoyed as recently as August. There was even worse news in a poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center that showed a precipitous drop in Republican support among frequent churchgoers, one of the most important and loyal elements of the G.O.P. base. There's no indication that they are clamoring to be Democrats, but the risk is that they will simply stay home on Election Day.
One of the victims may turn out to be campaign chairman Reynolds, who suddenly found himself running as many as 8 points behind in his upstate New York House-seat re-election bid, which had appeared fairly safe a week earlier. Hastert's job seems secure for the moment, barring any big new revelations, in part because the House Speaker is not merely a party leader; the role was established under the Constitution. It would be difficult to replace Hastert without summoning Congress back into town from the campaign trail. Nor would an ugly fight over who would succeed him be good for the party's prospects in November. Still, Republicans are not particularly eager to be seen with him. His campaign schedule is starting to look a lot lighter, as House candidates across the country are turning down his offers to do fund raisers for them. Even the leadership's much vaunted discipline seems to be in tatters. Majority leader Boehner defended himself last week by attacking Hastert: "My position is, it's in his corner, it's his responsibility." And the third in command, whip Roy Blunt, suggested that things would have been different if he had been informed. Not incidentally, both men are expected to consider making a bid for the top job if Hastert ultimately steps down—and maybe if he doesn't. But by then the job description may be House minority leader.
G.O.P. leaders are so desperate to find someone else to blame that they have been reduced—with no indication that they see the irony—to blaming a vast left-wing conspiracy. "The people who want to see this thing blow up," Hastert told the Chicago Tribune, "are abc News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros," the liberal financier who has become a bogeyman of the right. Hastert went on to say, without producing any proof, that the revelation was the work of Bill Clinton's operatives. But that line of argument, of course, suggests that Republicans would have preferred to keep Foley's secrets locked away, presumably at the pages' peril. And the Democrats for once are showing the good sense to stay out of the way when the other side is self-destructing. Sighed one of the younger House Republican aides who sits in on key meetings: "Foul play on the Democrats' side? If that is the only card left to play, then we are in serious trouble."
The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Problem
As Hastert and his forces have been trumpeting their charges against the Democrats, a whisper campaign has been launched in Washington to blame an internal culprit: a "velvet mafia" at the upper levels of G.O.P. leadership on Capitol Hill. Foley, that line of argument went, had been protected by gay staff members like Fordham, Trandahl and others whose names were being widely circulated. Says a top aide: "It looks like they may have tried to handle this among themselves because they were similarly situated."
In many ways, that story line is the product of the strains within the party over homosexuality. It's a tension nearly as deep and tortured as those the Democrats grappled with over race a half-century ago, when they tried—unsuccessfully—to keep an uneasy coalition of Southern segregationists and Northern civil rights advocates from tearing their party apart. Even though many of the G.O.P.'s policies have been hostile to gay rights, its leaders have long followed a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy with what pretty much everyone in Washington knows is a sizable number of closeted Republicans among members of Congress, upper-level staff and top party operatives. Says Patrick Sammon, executive vice president of the gay group Log Cabin Republicans: "There are a lot of gay Republicans who are working behind the scenes to advance the priorities of this party."
Until now, Republicans were able to manage the conflict. And they managed it by ignoring it. That even became part of an electoral strategy dating back to the 2000 election that suggested there was nothing to be gained by moderation. In a memo he wrote to Karl Rove, Bush pollster Matthew Dowd estimated that truly independent voters had fallen to a mere sliver of the electorate. There were, Dowd concluded, not enough percentage points in being "a uniter, not a divider." The key to winning in a polarized country was mobilizing the conservative base. That year, Bush refused to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, choosing instead to see a handpicked group of gay Republicans, but only after the party's nomination was secured. In 2004, even as Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary was a potential symbol of the party's openheartedness, Republicans put anti-gay-marriage measures on 11 state ballots to drive voter turnout.
But the Foley scandal is making it difficult for the party to look the other way. Last week some conservatives went so far as to insinuate that Foley proves that every gay person is a pedophile waiting to happen. "You don't need 'gaydar' to understand he has certain dispositions," Utah Congressman Chris Cannon told the Deseret News. Televangelist Pat Robertson recommended that G.O.P. leaders simply explain the situation this way: "Well, this man's gay. He does what gay people do."
The resignations of Foley and Fordham sparked fears that other gay Republicans would also soon be forced out of both their closets and their jobs. "Kirk is the fall guy," says gay-rights activist Hilary Rosen. "It's going to be open season on gay Republicans. It's the right wing's perfect storm. They never wanted gays in their party anyway."
Ruling with an Iron Fist
Oddly enough, it was a sex scandal in 1998 that brought Hastert from obscurity to the Speaker's chair in the first place. Gingrich had been ousted because his brand of fiery leadership had become such a drag on the party that it lost seats rather than gained them amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal.� But his anointed successor, Robert Livingston of Louisiana, suddenly backed out amid revelations of an extramarital affair. That's when the party turned to Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach whose affability and low-key demeanor seemed to guarantee calmer times ahead. He was, after all, the man who said he was too humble to brag about being humble. And yet the way the House has operated under Hastert has been anything but humble. He quickly came to be viewed as little more than a genial front for then majority leader Tom DeLay, whose nickname—the Hammer—pretty much summed up his leadership touch.
"There has been no institutional rule, means, norm or tradition that cannot be set aside to advance a partisan political goal," says Brookings Institution political scientist Thomas Mann, co-author of the recently published book whose title describes Congress as The Broken Branch. In 2003, instead of fashioning a compromise that might woo a few Democrats, Hastert and DeLay held what was supposed to be a 15-min. vote open for three full hours as they squeezed the last Republican votes they needed to pass a bill to provide an expensive prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program. Far more than in the past, they brought bills to the floor with no chance of amendment and allowed the normal appropriations process to be circumvented so that pet projects could be funded without scrutiny. When DeLay faced indictment by a Texas grand jury, Hastert changed the Republican rules so that DeLay could stay on as leader—though in the ensuing outcry, he had to reverse himself. Hastert was successful, however, in purging the ethics committee of its chairman and two Republican members who had reprimanded DeLay for misconduct. Stretching the limits of arcane House rules and shuffling committees around may not seem like earthshaking offenses, but they are the same type of procedural strangleholds and power plays that the G.O.P. had hoped to excise from the body politic 12 years ago.
"The Republican Party of 2006 is a tired, cranky shell of the aggressive, reformist movement that was swept into office in 1994 on a wave of positive change," Frank Luntz, one of the strategists of the G.O.P. takeover, wrote this week in a column for Time.com. "I worked for them. They were friends of mine. These Republicans are not those Republicans."
On policy matters, Hastert's leadership approach has been to act as though the Democrats—and sometimes the Senate—simply do not exist. He squeezes hard-edged partisan bills through the House to please the G.O.P. base, even though they have no chance of ever getting through the Senate and reaching the President's desk. "There have been numerous occasions when bipartisan approaches, which would have benefited our conference more than Democrats, have been rebuffed by the Speaker," complains a senior Republican aide, who says he likes and respects the Speaker. "His strategy seems to be, 'Well, don't worry about it. We'll blame [Democratic Leader Nancy] Pelosi.' That might work in isolated circumstances, but when your party's numbers start to tank, and people want to see that you can govern, that approach is not a solid one."
Party leaders concede the point that their revolution hasn't lived up to everything they promised. But they say voters still see the difference between where the parties stand. Former Republican chairman Ed Gillespie—one of the authors of the Contract with America, on which House Republicans ran in 1994—says, "Our party is still better when it comes to spending than the Democrats, stronger on national security than the Democrats and more likely to share concerns about the coarsening of our culture that a majority of Americans share than the Democrats are." Strategists are putting an optimistic face even on the effects of the Foley scandal, saying their internal polling shows little movement against the G.O.P. Will the Democrats behave any differently if they retake Congress in November? Some would undoubtedly try to use their majority power to exact revenge for Republican overreach. And history has shown them to be just as capable of the type of ideological drift that is tearing at the G.O.P.
For now, though, the question on everyone's mind is, How do the Republicans find their way from here? A number of conservatives have begun to wonder aloud if it wouldn't be better for the party to lose the House or Senate in November. If the revolutionaries have become the redcoats, then perhaps it's time for another uprising. Send the Republicans back into the wilderness so they can forage for the kind of fresh ideas and guerrilla tactics that made them such a force during their previous march on Washington. They could very well be ready in time for the presidential election in 2008. And while they're out there on the campaign trail, they just might rally around their old general, who will be looking to cap his own hardscrabble journey from political pariah to rehabbed revolutionary. That general, of course, is none other than former Speaker Gingrich, who has been spotted in Iowa, New Hampshire and other battleground states for more than a year now, taking potshots at the Establishment he helped create and rearming himself to storm the next barricade.
—With reporting by Mike Allen, Melissa August, Perry Bacon Jr., Brian Bennett, Timothy J. Burger, Massimo Calabresi, James Carney and Ana Marie Cox/ Washington and Jeffrey Ressner/Simi Valley
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