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

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