Remember moral clarity?
That was the most hotly advertised Republican virtue of the high Bush era, from the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks to the dawn of the Iraq War on through to Campaign ’04. It was the near-mystical ability to mark enemies as evildoers, and to dismiss critics as appeasers, relativists and/or de facto abettors of terror. You saw it on proud parade during the 2004 G.O.P. convention at Madison Square Garden, with Rudy Giuliani, Dick Cheney and, of course, President George W. Bush himself thundering over and over again that they were champions of good over evil, civilization over barbarism, freedom over terror.
Now flash-forward to the resignation of Florida G.O.P. Representative Mark Foley late last Friday, as members of Congress worked to clear the legislative agenda and go back home to campaign for re-election. As ABC News and other outlets reported out the scandal, it gradually became clear that Congress had passively tolerated a gruesome abuse of office: a 52-year-old lawmaker luring Congressional pages—16-year-old high-school juniors at the time of their service—into sexually charged instant-message and e-mail exchanges (and possibly actual sexual contact, to judge by the steamier I.M. transcripts).
Yet instead of seeking the moral high ground—or simply exercising the Judeo-Christian option of confessing error, bad judgment and seeking contrition—Congressional Republican leaders, whose best shot at retaining a majority in the House of Representatives is to firm up their pact with “values voters” of the religious right, morphed into a band of moral relativists.
First there was denial. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert initially insisted that no G.O.P. leader in Congress had been notified of Mr. Foley’s salacious misdeeds before they came to light on Sept. 29. That claim got promptly debunked, however, when news surfaced that Louisiana Republican Representative Rodney Alexander had brought Mr. Foley’s e-mail exchange with a former page in his district to the attention of upstate G.O.P. Representative Tom Reynolds, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee. Mr. Reynolds, in turn, says he brought it to the attention of Speaker Hastert in early 2006, doing what any good loyal employee would do: “I took it to my supervisor.” (Mr. Reynolds made this classic appropriation of the Eichmannian “just following orders” self-defense during a singularly bizarre upstate press conference, where he was surrounded by mothers holding squirming toddlers, thereby giving him a ready-made—if symbolically clubfooted—excuse to discourage the press from asking “adult questions” about the Foley affair.)
However defective their own communication skills, the two leaders apparently kicked the complaint—which concerned an excited solicitation of a photo, together with sincere inquiries after the boy’s well-being in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—over to John Shimkus, who heads the House Page Board, and to the House Clerk. And there it moldered, until last week’s revelations.
That news triggered the next stage of postmodern contingency in Congressional cognition: the convenient memory lapses. Mr. Hastert replied to Mr. Reynolds’ version of events by saying that the matter may have come to his attention, but he had no memory of it. (An aide said that Mr. Reynolds was trying to “throw another member under a bus,” which is the sort of experience likely to considerably sharpen one’s memory.) Meanwhile, House Majority Leader John Boehner climbed back down from an earlier claim that he and Mr. Hastert had huddled over the suspicious e-mail, saying that he too couldn’t be certain, in retrospect, that the confab had actually happened.
Evidently, the man now third in line for the Presidency is incapable of conducting a single memorable conversation; members apparently more or less hallucinate him into being, like the ghost of Tom Joad, when a politically explosive question of the conduct of a colleague comes to light.
Then came the accountability dodges. Mr. Hastert offered the view that the parents of the boy in question did not want any official action on the matter—they simply wanted Mr. Foley to leave the boy in peace. Why, Mr. Hastert wondered, should the matter go any further than that?
Of course, with less than a day’s worth of follow-up digging, ABC was able to demonstrate, in graphic detail, why Mr. Foley’s antics bore some closer examination. What’s more, Mr. Shimkus and his G.O.P. colleagues on the House Page Board didn’t parse out any of the information about Mr. Foley to the board’s sole Democrat, Dale Kildee of Michigan. “The fact that the Democrat on the pages committee wasn’t informed of this, that makes this play as a partisan thing,” said G.O.P. consultant Rick Davis, a longtime advisor to Arizona Senator John McCain who runs the consulting group Davis Manafort. “You’d think that anything involving a member and a page that goes beyond a gray line would raise all kinds of red flags. It’s not as if this hasn’t been an issue before.” There certainly is little question that if the allegations involved a Democratic member, the full artillery of Washington scandal amplification—press events, resolutions, investigations—would have swung rapidly into gear. Certainly, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Hastert wouldn’t shuffle the reports ineffectually until the matter was more or less forgotten.
Instead, said Mr. Davis, you have pretty much the reverse effect: In Mr. Hastert, “we’ve got a guy we have to rely on to communicate to the public that we’re sincere about this who isn’t talking to the media. And then he has a press conference to try to clean it up and doesn’t take any questions,” Mr. Davis marveled. “What’s the point of that? Why not just issue a statement and leave?”
Disenchantment with the speaker is running high in the ranks of the G.O.P. On Tuesday, the lead editorial of The Washington Times—a paper no doubt sensitive to issues of child sexual endangerment since a former human-resources employee was arrested in late September for soliciting sex with a 13-year-old girl—called for Mr. Hastert’s resignation. “I’ve been talking to the mainstream press all day,” joked Charles Black, chairman of BKSH & Associates and a former chief spokesman for both the Republican National Committee and the first President Bush’s 1992 re-election campaign, “and never have I heard them talk so much about what an influential paper The Washington Times is.” Mr. Black dismisses such pronouncements as part of a “full-fledged feeding frenzy.”
“What in the pattern of facts would prompt Denny Hastert to sacrifice his job? Not a single House Republican has asked him to step down. And what would the reason be—as some sort of symbolic protest over Mark Foley?”
The problem, though, isn’t so much the G.O.P. House members who elected Mr. Hastert speaker—it’s the conservative-base voters whom G.O.P. strategists are desperate to get out in full force for their slate of candidates in the off-year elections next month. And conservative leaders aren’t exactly rallying to the cause this time out. “The Republicans are beside themselves over how they’re going to get the values voters—their base—energized,” says Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail baron who helped game the religious right’s initial rise to power during the 1980’s Reagan revolution. But the Foley affair “is a blow to their solar plexus. They’ve outworn their welcome.”
Mr. Viguerie, who just released the truth-in- advertising jeremiad entitled Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Movement, argues that the base got fed up with Republican leaders long before the Foley fiasco. “You talk about the programs and the policies that have disappointed values voters—that’s one thing. But look at personnel. Since the November ’04 election, it’s been clear that President Bush owes a lot to the conservative movement. Well, how does he reward us? In the first term, we had a couple of appointees, like [Attorney General John] Ashcroft. In this one, we have no one. It’s all corporations. It’s all Wall Street. This time, he just forgot us.”
Mr. Viguerie seconds the call for Mr. Hastert’s resignation; indeed, he advocates “a clean sweep” in the leadership of Congress—even in the critical month of campaigning left before the ’06 election. “People like Hastert, Blunt and Boehner, they’re old and tired. They have no vision. There are two ways you can govern: You can manage the government or lead the country. People like L.B.J. and Jimmy Carter, they were managers. Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy led the country. These guys in this Congress are green-eyeshade bookkeepers.”
With the election just a month away, it’s hard not to see why the “values” voting bloc won’t be sharing Mr. Viguerie’s disgust. Even pols who keep close to the playbook, like Mr. Black, concede that “this doesn’t look good.” How not good, in electoral terms? “I think it’s touch-and-go in the House.” Mr. Davis is considerably glummer. “These guys needed a good four weeks of run-up to the election. But whatever good the Bush administration did in September to repair their image and the image of the Republicans running the government, that’s all gone now.”
Mr. Viguerie, for his part, doesn’t warm to the prospect of “House Speaker Pelosi”—the talismanic G.O.P. shorthand for the worst-case scenario. But, he says, “I tell conservatives, ‘Do not fear defeat.’ If, in 1976, Ford had been re-elected, there would have been no way that Ronald Reagan would have won the nomination in 1980. If George H.W. Bush had won re-election in 1992, conservatives would have lost seats in 1994 instead of taking over Congress for the first time in 40 years. Only from defeats can you really raise a new generation of leaders."