GOP blame game hits usual suspects

October 10, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Partisan panic in the wake of former Rep. Mark Foley's e-mail scandal seems to have caused some conservatives to forget their own sermons about personal responsibility. Some of them, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, show little interest in owning up to their problems. Instead, they try to blame their usual suspects - Democrats and the news media - without evidence to back up their charges.

"When the [Republican Party's conservative] base finds out who's feeding this monster, they're not going to be happy," a defiant Mr. Hastert told the Chicago Tribune days after Mr. Foley resigned amid ABC News reports of the Florida Republican's sexually suggestive e-mails and instant messages to teenage males in the House page program. "The people who want to see this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by [liberal billionaire philanthropist] George Soros," Mr. Hastert said.

I've looked at that quote every which way, and I can't find any way that it makes Mr. Hastert look good. His unsubstantiated charges were quickly denied by all of the parties he named. Instead of saving himself, Mr. Hastert sounded like two of his conservative movement's arch-foes: former President Bill Clinton, who criticized ABC News for its damaging scoops during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who blamed an unnamed "vast right-wing conspiracy" for her husband's political troubles.

Besides, Democrats wish they were that clever.

Even if a left-wing conspiracy did know about Mr. Foley's suspicious e-mails, it would only raise more questions as to why Mr. Hastert did not know about them - or, at least, aggressively investigate the allegations when he first learned about them.

Mr. Hastert's office learned last fall about an e-mail Mr. Foley had sent to a 16-year-old boy asking about the boy's birthday and inviting the youth to send a photo of himself to Mr. Foley.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee, said he told Mr. Hastert last spring about that incident, which ended with a warning to Mr. Foley to halt contact with the boy. Mr. Hastert said he doesn't remember that conversation, but he doesn't dispute it.

Mrs. Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy" charge did inflame the liberal base, just as Mr. Hastert's invoking the name of Mr. Soros, a favorite whipping boy of conservatives, undoubtedly was intended to inflame the GOP's conservative base. The base needs inflaming. Polls showed many conservatives to be disenchanted over the Iraq war, immigration, the deficit and other issues even before the Foley fiasco unfolded.

Efforts to blame the media or Democrats for the Foley fallout sound like the last refuge of the politically trapped, especially when Mr. Hastert's critics include such prominent conservative voices as the editorial page of The Washington Times, which called for his resignation.

Even feeble attempts to bring up former Rep. Gerry E. Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat who was censured in 1983 but re-elected six more times despite an admitted affair with a 17-year-old male page, fell flat. Democrats can come back with reminders of Rep. Daniel B. Crane, an Illinois Republican who was defeated after his involvement with a female page.

Either way, Republicans have made moral values a centerpiece of their appeal to "values voters." It does not help matters, after running as guardians of moral uprightness, for Mr. Hastert to now argue that he's no worse than the other guys.

Mr. Hastert did the right thing in a news conference last week when he invoked President Harry Truman's memorable quote, "The buck stops here," and announced a full House investigation into who knew what about Mr. Foley's creepy messages to pages and former pages and when they knew what they knew. Mr. Hastert also announced the House would cooperate with the FBI's investigation of Mr. Foley's possibly criminal activities.

That cooperation is particularly significant to those who remember the speaker's outrage over the FBI's search of Rep. William J. Jefferson's congressional office last spring in the investigation of bribery allegations against the Louisiana Democrat. Mr. Hastert's concern for separation of powers may have been valid under constitutional law, but it did not play well with law-and-order conservatives. (An appeals court later ruled in favor of the FBI.)

Politics is 90 percent perception, by my humble estimate, and the negative perceptions left by "Foley-gate" hit Republicans in their core values. Having run for office as small-government "outsiders" who would clean up the mess in Washington, conservatives cannot afford to be perceived as having become part of the mess, even if they have.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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