The Foley Fallout: Republicans on Damage Control


WASHINGTON, Oct. 3, 2006 — -- A Republican political consultant who shares my affection for old movies answered my question about the Foley scandal on Capitol Hill with his own question.

"You mean," he said, "is this the end of Rico?"

That, of course, was actor Edward G. Robinson's famous closing line as he died in the gangster classic "Little Caesar."

The GOP consultant was asking as lightheartedly as he could, "Is this the end of my party's hold on the House?"

The consultant, an old pro, doesn't really know and does not want to damage his reputation by speculating.

"I've never seen anything like this," he said.

A lot of people in Washington have said that.

The idea that one member of Congress could bring down his party has staggered this town. Now there is even talk that voter revulsion over the Foley scandal could oust the Republican hold on the Senate, too.

The problem for the GOP is that the scandal goes beyond former Rep. Mark Foley's Internet messages to pages and former pages.

The question is whether the House leadership, especially Speaker Dennis Hastert, should have taken firmer action after learning last year of Foley's "overly friendly" e-mails.

Hastert has defended himself, saying he only learned of the far more explicit "instant messages" last Friday after ABC News revealed them.

That did not satisfy the staunchly conservative Washington Times newspaper, which demanded his resignation.

Hastert says he has no intention of resigning.

Initially, the White House reaction to the scandal was mild, with Press Secretary Tony Snow urging that people wait for the facts.

As the firestorm intensified, however, President Bush finally broke his silence today, saying he was "shocked … dismayed" and "disgusted by the revelations."

The president also spoke warmly of Hastert.

"I know Denny Hastert," Bush said. "I meet with him a lot. He is a father, a teacher, a coach. He cares about the children of this country."

It is commonplace in Washington to hear that the party's future depends on its effectiveness at damage control.

But as ABC News polling director Gary Langer notes, "As a rule, voting for House seats is driven by local personalities, local campaigns."

There are exceptions, notably the Watergate Class of '74.

Voters showed their disdain for Richard Nixon's excesses by punishing Republicans at the polls.

Twenty years later, voters were angry again, this time at the Democrats. Gun owners were especially fed up.

Pollsters talked of angry white males in an election in which issues were summed up as "guns, God and gays."

The Democrats lost their 40-year hold on the House.

It's easy this time to say anger will again drive the election, this time anger over the Foley scandal.

After all, the anger or disgust seems widespread. It's not just white males who are angry. A scandal involving a congressman and teenagers is distasteful to men and women.

Social conservatives, who usually support the GOP, are upset, and some could stay home on Election Day.

But it is difficult to nationalize a congressional election.

And it could be dangerous for Democrats to try if their issue is GOP handling of the Foley affair.

In an e-mail aimed at rallying their troops five weeks before Election Day, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said that "Speaker Hastert and Republican House leaders have chosen partisan politics over protecting children."

Voters could be turned off if they believe Democrats are trying to make political hay out of such a sensitive issue.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said the Foley scandal is "revolting," but she told ABC News that Democrats would make a mistake by trying to capitalize on it.

All that may be true, but Stephen Hess of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution said the Foley affair is still "very bad news for Republicans."

It came, he noted, just as they were starting to make a comeback in the polls.

Gas prices were dropping, which is always good news for the party in power.

And President Bush's vigorous defense of his Iraq and national security policies seemed to have had some success.

Then the GOP got hit with a one-two punch.

First, a leaked National Intelligence Estimate and Bob Woodward's new book cast doubts on the administration's credibility and competence in dealing with Iraq and al Qaeda.

Then, the Foley scandal, which was "a kick in the stomach to Republicans," said Hess, especially because "they felt they were gaining momentum. Now they have lost the Big Mo."

Langer said the GOP still has time to regain momentum.

"After all," he said, "just a week or so ago the big issue was falling prices at the gas pump. Who knows what next week will bring?"

It's hard to imagine that next week could bring any worse news for Republicans.

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