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The House Republican Leadership Scandal | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The House Republican Leadership Scandal

The Mark Foley Scandal is over. The Florida Republican congressman who sent "Do I make you horny?" messages to teenage pages has resigned his seat and gone into rehab. He needed help and, now, he's getting it. There will be a few more salacious revelations--like today's report that the congressman was such a multi-tasker that he balanced the sending of racy instant messages with his duty to show up for floor votes -- and perhaps some legal playout to this sad tale. But Foley's political journey is finished.

The Republican Congressional Leadership Scandal is most definitely not over. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Republican Congressional Campaign Committee chair Tom Reynolds, R-New York, and other leaders of the GOP caucus who knew about the Foley problem and did little or nothing to deal with it, have been exposed for what they are: Political animals who care about nothing--absolutely nothing--except maintaining power.

How determined were these key Republicans to keep their grip on Congress in what has turned into an exceptionally troublesome election year for the party? On Monday, it was revealed that, as recently as last week, an aide to Reynolds tried to get ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross, who broke the Foley story, to kill it. In return for joining the cover-up, Ross was offered an exclusive on what the GOP leaders had hoped would be a neatly-wrapped, relatively uncontroversial story of Foley's decision to step down "for personal reasons." According to Ross, "I said we're not making any deals."

The fact of the last-minute attempt to cut those deals gives a painfully accurate reading of the "moral values" and the political priorities of the Republican leadership circle.

That reality does not make the Republicans particularly worse than the Democrats, who are certainly not above clawing for power and practicing the politics of "victory at any cost." But, in two meaningful senses, the leaders of the Grand Old Party are distinguished from the leaders of the not particularly grand opposition party:

1. The Republicans are in charge. Hastert, Boehner, Reynolds and their compatriots and co-conspirators run the Congress. In fact, they have run things more tightly than any majority in decades. As such, this particular scandal, cannot be blamed on others. Republicans own the House, they set the rules, they determine what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. They have all the power, and their obvious lack of concern for anything except maintaining that power is now exposed.

2. The Republicans have secured and maintained that power--which is used almost exclusively to enrich their wealthy political allies, contributors and supporters--by convincing millions of working-class Americans who are sincerely socially conservative to vote against their class interests in order to satisfy their moral interests. Suddenly, the dubious political construct on which the modern Republican Party has stood has been exposed. Social conservatives have been alerted to the fact that morality has never been a high priority of the corporate "conservatives" who call the shots in the Congressional leadership of what they thought was God's Own Party.

That news comes at a time when Republicans, already battered by President Bush's dwindling approval ratings and the Abramoff lobbying scandal, are scrambling to maintain control of the House. The timing for the GOP really could not be worse, not because of the scandal's potential to cause social conservatives to vote for Democrats but because of the potential that it will cause so-called "moral-values" voters to turn away from the political process. Few political realities are more certain than this: If social conservatives don't turn out on election day, Republicans don't win.

Even the usually hapless Democrats have recognized the opening and are beginning to exploit it. Democratic candidates are calling on Republican House members to renounce Hastert and Boehner, to give back money not just from Foley's political action committee but from those of the Republican leaders, and--in the last few hours--to demand Hastert's resignation. In a key Pennsylvania House race, Chris Carney, the Democratic challenger to scandal-plagued Republican Don Sherwood, called on the incumbent to cancel scheduled fundraising events with GOP House leaders. "Sherwood should immediately cancel his upcoming fundraisers with Hastert and Boehner," argued Carney. "Don Sherwood has already brought Washington's values back to the district, now he wants to bring a depraved cover-up home."

The reach of this issue is evident even beyond congressional races; in Wisconsin, where Republican Congressman Mark Green is challenging Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, the Doyle campaign is telling reporters: "It is past time for Congressman Green to display some real leadership and add his voice to the growing chorus of voices calling for Speaker Hastert to resign."

This is an incredibly volatile moment, so volatile that the Republicans may be inclined to sacrifice one of their own in order to deflect attention from the broader crisis of confidence. The party cannot afford to have its social conservative base vote suppressed by disgust, or even confusion, over Hastert's actions--and inactions.

Already, the conservative Washington Times, an influential voice in Republican circles, has called for Hastert's immediate resignation. "House Speaker Dennis Hastert must do the only right thing, and resign his speakership at once," the newspaper's editors wrote Tuesday morning. Conservative talk-radio hosts, including Michael Reagan, the son of the former president, have been similarly tough on the leadership.

How seriously are top Republican taking the demands for a house cleaning? Seriously enough to begin lobbing bombs at one another.

In an interview with radio station WLW in Cincinnati, Boehner was pointing the finger of blame at Hastert. "[It's] in his corner. It's his responsibility," the Number 2 Republican in the House said. "The Clerk of the House, who runs the page program, the page board, all report to the speaker, and I believed it had been dealt with."

A few hours later, Boehner seemed to be backtracking--as several members of the leadership have after attempting to deflect fallout from the scandal. The majority leader issued a statement claiming that "no one in the leadership, including Speaker Hastert, had any knowledge of the warped and sexually explicit instant messages."

That is, of course, a lie. But it is a necessary lie, as all evidence suggests that Boehner was at least as fully informed of the details of the sexually explicit communications as was Hastert in the months before they became public. Thus, while many conservative activists might be willing to sacrifice Hastert --perhaps the most expendable Speaker of the House in history -- there is little reason to believe that doing so would make this House Republican Leadership Scandal go away.

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