David Corn: Out of America

A war gone bad and a sex scandal may not be enough to remove Bush's party from Capitol Hill

Share

Were the United States a European-style democracy, the Republicans, who control 231 of the House of Representatives' 435 seats, could expect in the 7 November elections to lose a hundred or so seats in a complete turnabout. But a Republican war gone bad and a Republican sex scandal may not be enough to remove George W Bush's party from power on Capitol Hill.

Americans tend to vote for individual candidates, not party representatives, and the borders of congressional district are so manipulated that of all the House seats, only 40 to 50 - about 10 per cent of the entire body - are considered to be competitive races. That means that if the Republicans pour enormous resources (and plenty of frightening and negative ads) into these contests and hold on to only a third of them, they can defy the obvious political tides and squeak by to victory.

That said, the aforementioned sex scandal is hardly helping them. Last week, the news broke that Representative Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who chaired the House caucus on missing and exploited children, had taken a sexual interest in male congressional pages, who tend to be 16 years old, and had apparently engaged in internet sex with at least one of them. Foley quickly quit Congress. A criminal investigation of his conduct was announced.

That was, of course, highly embarrassing for a party that proclaims fidelity to family values. But before Republican spinners could dismiss the matter as merely a one-bad-apple episode, the affair morphed into a scandal threatening Republican leaders of Congress, most notably the House Speaker, Denny Hastert. The issue was whether Hastert had failed to heed warnings about Foley. He claimed he had heard nothing about Foley's disturbing (and possibly illegal) conduct. Other Republicans said Hastert's office had been told about a worrisome note Foley had sent a male page. And a former chief of staff for Foley told reporters he had warned Hastert's office years ago about Foley.

Hastert was thrust into an untenable position. Either he had known something was wrong and had not taken action, or he and his aides had failed to investigate clear signs of trouble. The Washington Times, an archly conservative newspaper, called for his resignation. Hastert, for his part, attacked Democrats for leaking the Foley story - though he admitted he had no proof they had done so (and no such evidence has emerged). Then he held a brief press conference and deployed an old politician's trick: he said he accepted full responsibility, but claimed he had done nothing wrong.

Meanwhile, House Republicans fell into disarray, with some publicly backing Hastert (as did Bush) and others distancing themselves.

The immediate question was, how would this affect the elections? House Republicans had already been anxious, mainly due to the public's concern with the unending Iraq war. Yet their nervousness had been easing up, as many placed faith in the ability of Karl Rove, Bush's master strategist, to "microtarget" just enough Republican-friendly voters to win the few critical races. The Foley-Hastert scandal caused a new round of sweating.

First, Republicans could wave goodbye to Foley's seat, which had previously been deemed an easy win. And Representative Tom Reynolds, a House leader caught up in the scandal and the head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, suddenly found himself in a tight race in his upstate New York district. So with Republican hopes of holding the House based on the party's ability to hang on to 15 to 20 key seats, two new seats in the possible loss column caused tremendous worry.

Second, the sex scandal shoved all else aside. Rove and the Republican Party had cooked up an eight-week campaign plan. It opened with an attempt to make the Democrats look weak on terrorism. But that ploy didn't succeed when several prominent Republicans opposed the administration's detainee interrogation bill. Foley's misdeeds and Hastert's bumbling then upstaged whatever the White House had planned next. Consequently, Rove has lost several weeks in his attempt to shape the national political environment to the Republicans' favour. That may end up hurting senatorial candidates, for recent polling shows the Democrats have moved closer to winning the Senate, which not too long ago was nearly unthinkable.

With Hastert fiercely holding on to his job, the scandal will continue to dominate the political news. But the White House has calculated (so far) that a Hastert resignation would be even worse. It knows there is still a chance that the Republicans will survive - narrowly. If so, that will be evidence, not only that Rove and the Republicans are master political strategists, but that the American political order is sclerotic, unresponsive and nearly impossible to change.

David Corn, Washington editor of 'The Nation', is co-author of 'Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War'. Rupert Cornwell is away

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links