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Out of Control
The impact of the Foley scandal on the congressional races is less about values than it is a general sense that Congress has gone astray.
By Eleanor Clift
Updated: 4:37 p.m. ET Oct. 6, 2006
Oct. 6, 2006 - Republicans booed their likely next House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, when she rose to speak Wednesday evening “not only as Democratic leader but as a mother and grandmother.” Some shouted “Jefferson,” a lame attempt to find equivalency between a disgraced Democrat, Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, currently under investigation for allegedly taking kickbacks, and Florida Republican Mark Foley, whose sexually predatory e-mails to teenage House pages has set off a round of recriminations among Republicans.
With the midterm election just five weeks away and GOP House leaders forming a circular firing squad, Pelosi is close to the point where she can start measuring the drapes in the speaker’s office. Even before Foley surfaced as an embarrassment for the Republicans, they were on track to lose their majority. The fact that the leaders of a political party known for stoking homophobia to win votes stood aside and did nothing for years to rein in Foley is further evidence the party has lost its way.
Everybody in Washington knew Foley was gay, but he never acknowledged it publicly until his lawyer announced it this week. Sneaking around is one of the problems of life in the closet, and when an elected official in the public eye, or anyone for that matter, lives this secret life, it’s a warping existence. Gay politicians need to get out there and live an adult life. And if the consequences are that they lose their jobs, that’s not the worst thing in the world. What Foley did was not about being gay but about abusing his power over young students—and it was compounded by the actions of his colleagues whose silence made them complicit.
The impact of the scandal on the congressional races is less about Foley and values than it is a general sense that Congress has spun out of control. “Foley is a symbol comparable to Terri Schiavo,” says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. Just as Congress’s ill-advised intervention into whether the brain-damaged Schiavo should be taken off life support reinforced a sense that the Republican-controlled Congress had been taken over by the Christian right, the Foley scandal feeds the perception that Congress is consumed with partisan infighting and unable to do the people’s business, that they care more about protecting their power than blowing the whistle on immoral behavior. “The Republican Congress is crashing in image,” says Greenberg. The Democrats don’t fare much better in Greenberg’s polling. “Democrats are just flat-lined through this period,” he says, an apt phrase suggesting a brain-dead party devoid of ideas and unwilling to take bold stands.
The public is right to be disgusted with Foley’s actions and angry at the way the Republicans covered up. But there’s no need for Democrats to get in the middle of what is a Republican free for all. When the opposition is self-destructing, get out of the way. Democrats who fuel the fire risk getting singed. Gay issues too easily turn into witch hunts. So far, only one Democratic candidate—Patty Wetterling, running for Congress in Minnesota—is directly playing off the Foley scandal by running an ad saying that congressional leaders had admitted covering up the congressman’s predatory behavior. Wetterling has more latitude than other candidates. She’s been a full-time child advocate since her 11-year-old son Jacob was abducted 17 years ago with no trace of him ever found.
Greenberg was in the field through Tuesday of this week polling 1,000 likely voters, tracking the reaction to Foley along with the fallout from Bob Woodward’s new book, “State of Denial.” Much of the elite media said the book revealed nothing new, that everyone knew Iraq was a mess. What Greenberg found is that having a journalist of Woodward’s standing say Bush hasn’t been telling the American people the truth allowed people to see facts in a new light and had a significant impact on attitudes about Bush and the war. Asked if the president has been mostly dishonest or mostly honest about Iraq, 56 percent said dishonest with 41 percent rating him mostly honest and 48 percent of those polled felt strongly that Bush had misled them about how bad things are in Iraq. “That’s a breathtaking number about a president in a war,” says James Carville, Greenberg’s sidekick and a colorful kibitzer on behalf of Democrats. Worsening news from Iraq reinforced the negative feelings with 21 U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq in the first four days of October.
The country is in turmoil over what’s happening in Washington, giving the Democrats a big lead going into the elections. A reporter asked Carville if the Foley scandal had never happened, did he think this poll would be a lot different? Carville insisted that despite Republican crowing about modest gains in recent weeks the race for Congress has stayed essentially the same since Hurricane Katrina 14 months ago. If the Republicans lose, he suspects they’ll blame it on Foley, but Foley is a symptom of a larger problem, a Congress that has gone astray. “I don’t think it would make two [percentage] points difference in anything if Foley were to rescue a drowning kid,” Carville said. “Right now this thing would be a rout.”
© 2006 MSNBC.com
The gay issue: GOP split between those seeing gay as sin and those wanting party to make room