There is a way to get out of the mess

Tell the truth, and don't wait, strategists say

October 08, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Republican congressional leaders and President Bush, trying to keep a sex-chat scandal from becoming a lethal election year battering, have turned to a well-worn playbook of damage-control techniques that strategists say could determine whether their party can keep its hold on Congress.

The strategies for coping with the Mark Foley affair are familiar to any politician or corporate chieftain faced with scandal: Say you're sorry. Pledge to do better. Blame your opponents. Distance yourself from the transgression. Change the subject.

But some insiders believe that Republicans may ultimately have to resort to the most drastic maneuver: offering up one or more sacrificial lambs, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Even then, analysts said, the moves may not avert disaster on Election Day.

"In a crisis of this magnitude, you have got to put the brakes on it immediately. There was only one way to deal with this, which was to immediately come out with all the facts at hand, apologize for having missed the signs initially, and discuss exactly what you've done to rectify the situation," said Mark Corallo, a Republican communications specialist. "Outside of that, you let it spin out of control and you become the one reacting to each new revelation."

Corallo and other strategists spoke before the latest such development, reported in today's Los Angeles Times, that a former page said that Foley had sex with him and ogled underage pages. The report complicated an already difficult damage-control challenge.

Public opinion surveys suggest that people are paying attention to the Foley matter, with 47 percent of respondents to an Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs poll saying that recent disclosures of scandal and corruption would be "very" or "extremely" important to their votes on Nov. 7. Fewer than one-fifth of voters said they would not play any role.

Republicans, including Bush, have rallied behind Hastert. The hope is that by displaying unity and calling for an investigation they can improve their party's standing and interrupt a steady stream of bad news.

They are also going on the offensive in an attempt to stoke enthusiasm among their disillusioned conservative base, by accusing Democrats and the news media of having known about Foley's misdeeds and waiting until the most damaging time on the electoral calendar to expose them.

Hastert charged ABC News, which broke the Foley story, and Democratic operatives funded by George Soros with "feeding this monster."

Republicans "believe that Denny is in a position right now to fix this and to take responsibility, and that's the most important thing, [not] just basically giving into what is an immediate goal of some people, which is to raise a scalp," said one Republican leadership aide who would discuss the strategy only on condition of anonymity.

Hastert defended himself at a news conference Thursday in his Batavia, Ill., district in which he apologized -- a move that some Republican strategists said was long overdue -- but also said he did not see himself as a liability to his party.

"I'm deeply sorry that this has happened," Hastert said, quoting President Harry S. Truman's famous "buck-stops-here" line and pledging to investigate. He later added, "I haven't done anything wrong, obviously."

The details of the scandal are murky, but even some Republican strategists suggest privately that Hastert either knew of or should have discovered Foley's improper interest in young pages after the parents of one page showed lawmakers a chummy e-mail from Foley last summer and asked that the congressman stop contacting their son.

"Could we have done it better?" Hastert said Thursday. "In retrospect, probably yes."

"It's starting to be too-little, too-late, but at least they're doing something. Up to now, they have broken every rule in every rulebook of a crisis manager," said Democratic lawyer Lanny J. Davis, who ministered to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio and wrote a scandal-management book, Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself .

Hastert "started out by denying, and then he went to blaming," added Davis, calling his actions "the same mistakes" that most politicians facing scandals make. "Unfortunately, they don't learn from past history that the only way to get past a crisis is to go transparent."

Republican leaders appear to have ripped pages from Clinton's scandal-control playbook, said Leon E. Panetta, a chief of staff in Clinton's White House, calling the current strategy "the hang-tough option" -- taking some responsibility while working feverishly to change the subject.

"You're basically kind of rolling the dice and hoping that you can whistle past the graveyard," Panetta said. "That was basically [Clinton's] approach to most issues like this: to hang tough, to divert attention, to compartmentalize."

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