Throughout the Bush era, voters have not always connected the dots. The Foley scandal now enveloping the House Republican leadership offers a belated opportunity for voters to make some connections. Yes, the scandal is about the disgrace of a congressman sending disgusting messages to teenage pages, and the failure of leaders to act on escalating warnings. But it is so much more.
Mark Foley was chairman of a House caucus on missing and exploited children. This was a party that literally put a pedophile in charge of pedophilia.
Does that have a vaguely familiar ring? It should. Its the same party that put the oil companies in charge of energy policy, and invited the drug and insurance industries to write the Medicare prescription bill for their own maximum profit. As investigations have revealed, it put lobbyists for polluting industries in charge of environmental protection. So there is a consistent theme here of the fox guarding the chicken coop.
And more. If the account of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert ignoring bad news about Foley also sounds familiar, it should, too. It is of a piece with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld burying intelligence accounts that did not square with the Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda story he was peddling, and the White House blowing off intelligence warnings about an impending Al Qaeda operation in summer 2001. As Bob Woodward recently revealed, these warnings went as high as CIA Director George Tenet paying an urgent call on then White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warning of an imminent attack, only to be rebuffed.
Its not surprising that Hastert did not lead. He was handpicked by then majority leader Tom DeLay to be a reassuring and largely powerless figurehead speaker. When DeLay fell, the cardboard Hastert was not up to the job.
This pattern should also ring a bell. It was Dick Cheney, selected in 2000 by party leaders to find a running mate for novice candidate George W. Bush, who conducted a national search and then selected himself. Cheney, like DeLay, has been the power behind the throne. And when the time comes for hard decisions, Bush, like Hastert, is AWOL.
In the Foley case, the Republicans are especially vulnerable, because they have made a fetish of traditional values one of which is hiding homosexuality in the closet and bashing it publicly while protecting closeted Republican gays. But their base of social conservatives, who excuse wrongheaded policies on national security and on the economy, will not give a pass to the Foley lapse.
The Cheney-Bush-Karl Rove governing coalition has always been an uneasy alliance between Wall Street elites, who benefit from the financial foxes lusting after the economic chickens, and social conservatives who have a genuine concern for families and traditional morality. There are just not enough votes of multimillionaires and K-Street lobbyists to keep the coalition in power, so the party depends heavily on its social base.
Social conservatives do not take kindly to child molesters, or their enablers. Republican candidates will suffer from a genuine wave of public revulsion, not just at what Foley did, but at how the leadership protected him. As always, the coverup is politically more damaging than the original event.
As various House Republicans point fingers and try to protect their behinds, this scandal will messily dominate the news between now and Election Day. Bit by agonizing bit, the facts of who knew what when, and did nothing, will agonizingly dribble out over the next several weeks.
If history is any guide, Hastert will resign. Others have resigned over less damaging lapses. Democratic Speaker Jim Wright was hounded from office in 1989 for having invited lobbyists to purchase copies of a memoir he had published. (Wrights nemesis, Newt Gingrich, was later forced out for abusing a tax-exempt political front group.) But investigations will continue, and even a Hastert resignation will not stem the damage.
The Greeks had a piece of wisdom that applies: Character is Fate. The Foley affair, and all it reveals, was an accident waiting to happen. It was a logical product of the cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy that pervade the Bush era.
There is an old saw in American politics that when your opponent is destroying himself, just get out of the way. Like much conventional wisdom, it is mostly wrong. This scandal, of its own accord, will certainly damage Republican congressional candidates. But if the Democrats are shrewd, they will help voters connect these dots.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
Copyright 2006 Boston Globe