Hastert now a target amid Foley scandal

October 04, 2006|By William Neikirk | William Neikirk,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- From the chaos of President Bill Clinton's impeachment and bitter political infighting among House Republicans nearly eight years ago, Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois emerged from virtual obscurity to become speaker of the House, chiefly because he seemed solid, unexciting and collegial.

In other words, he possessed the qualities that his predecessor, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and his chief backer, Tom DeLay of Texas, largely lacked. At the time, the Republican Party was desperate for stability and for a leader who could work behind the scenes to get things done.

"We needed a guy who was just rock-solid," said Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, rather than the often flamboyant DeLay, who became a political target as lobbying and electoral scandals resulted in his indictment and resignation.

But now, in the aftermath of the resignation of Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, over sexually explicit messages sent to young male pages, Hastert has suddenly become a political target, too.

As he rejected the demand of a Washington Times editorial yesterday that he step down from the speaker's job, Hastert clearly is on shakier ground these days. This is a problem that cannot be solved by his talent for backslapping, schmoozing and cajoling.

In an interview broadcast yesterday with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, Hastert talked about the mechanics of politics as well as his message when asked how he would seek to increase voter turnout, especially among Republican conservatives.

Hastert said he would travel in 30 congressional districts between now and the Nov. 7 elections - "to go back local," as he put it - to defeat Democrats.

"They're trying to put us on defense," he said, adding that he would emphasize the Republican Party's record on the economy, energy independence and the war against terrorism.

"It's going to be a tough election," said Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "This incident with Foley will make it tougher. I believe we will come back."

Hastert's past politicking to elect Republicans has been largely successful, as he has aligned himself closely with the White House on policy and raised money for GOP candidates.

Though often underestimated, Hastert took a shaky Republican majority in the House of Representatives and expanded it. In the process, the House passed major Bush initiatives, including tax cuts and the expansion of Medicare, and supported him on the war in Iraq.

Hastert's low profile has been raised by the Foley scandal, which has called into question one of his greatest strengths as a detail man who quietly keeps things under control.

"His staff let him down," LaHood said. "His staff did not inform him. ... He has to take the brunt of the criticism."

William Neikirk writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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