The GOP is already squirming under an ethical cloud, thanks to the two-year-old CIA leak scandal and an ongoing probe into the activities of presidential adviser Karl Rove; the indictment and resignation last month of Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby; the criminal indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on charges of conspiracy and money laundering; the “insider trading” investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) by both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission; and a wide-ranging probe into the activities of Republican “super-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff, which could open up further investigations into corruption in Congress and agencies of the executive branch. With the American public turning sharply against George W. Bush’s Iraq war and questioning the prez’s honesty and trustworthiness, the last thing Republicans need right now is more evidence to substantiate the Democratic meme about how Bush and his party have created a “culture of corruption” in the U.S. capital.
So Republicans who were previously reticent to question Cunningham’s behavior, are now lining up to toss dirt onto the figurative grave of this lawmaker who’s been so useful to them in the past, both as a determined, authoritative voice on military matters and as an attack dog when it came to knee-capping Democratic opponents. (Cunningham was involved, for instance, in former President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 effort to undermine Bill Clinton’s patriotism by making an issue of his trip to Moscow while a student. And during last year’s presidential campaign, he denounced John Kerry’s criticisms of the Vietnam War, declaring, “We do not need a ‘Jane Fonda’ as commander in chief.”)
Bush, desperate to change the subject from his administration’s scandals and to rebuild support for his takeover of Iraq (so desperate, in the latter case, that he’s now secretly paying newspapers in Baghdad to publish stories written by U.S. propagandists), was johnny-on-the-spot with his damnation of Cunningham. “The idea of a congressman taking money is outrageous,” the prez said on Tuesday. “And Congressman Cunningham is going to realize that he has broken the law and is going to pay a serious price, which he should.”
Gee, ya think?
Representative David Drier (R-California), who heads up the U.S. House Rules Committee, was even less fiery in his response to Cunningham’s felony plea. “It is regretful that his great service to this country has been tarred by his actions,” Drier said in a statement. A far less equivocal statement came from U.S. Representative Ron Packard, a California Republican who served on Capitol Hill for 18 years and had defended Cunningham in the recent past. Asked by the San Diego Union-Tribune whether he felt betrayed by his ex-colleague, Packard responded, “I do, and I think his constituents do.”
So will this fear-provoked separation from Cunningham’s troubles save other Republicans another tarring with the corruption brush? Bruce Bartlett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, suggests that it may already be too late. In a recent syndicated essay, the conservative Bartlett writes:
One of the most important political developments in America today is the creeping corruption of the Republican Party. Increasingly, there is little meaningful difference between Republicans in Congress and the Democrats they replaced a little over 10 years ago. Unless they clean up their act fast, Republicans are going to suffer major losses in next year’s congressional elections.Conservative New York Post columnist John Podhoretz is likewise weighing what impact the Republican scandals, particularly the aborning Abramoff affair, could have on the GOP’s prospects in next year’s midterm elections. As he notes, Democrats need to pick up 16 seats (out of a total of 435) in the U.S. House of Representatives to gain control of that lower body--not a big number, but seemingly unlikely, given the low count of seats (27 to 53) that are expected to see competitive races. However, Podhoretz writes, continuing and worsening scandals might “place the GOP’s majority in great jeopardy.” He adds: “That’s just the sort of thing that could make all the prognostications about competitive seats and Republican strongholds meaningless. Disgust is a powerful force in politics, and the Abramoff case is one that seems to be churning the stomachs of those Republicans and Democrats alike who know about it. If the whole country comes to know about it, watch out, GOP.”
There is no question that Democrats had become deeply corrupt during the 40 years after 1954 when they controlled the House of Representatives continuously. Everyone knew it, just as everyone knows the truth of Lord Acton’s famous maxim, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That is why the House bank scandal involving bounced checks was so politically potent--it personified petty Democratic corruption in a way that average people could relate to.
Republicans pounded the bank scandal mercilessly and promised to overhaul House procedures and operations if they took control in 1994. On the first day of a Republican majority, they promised to have an outside audit of all House finances, to make laws Congress had exempted itself from apply equally to it, to limit committee chairmanships, to eliminate proxy voting and other reforms.
To their credit, they did enact these reforms in January 1995. But it didn’t take long before Republicans were engaging in the same abuses of power that the Democrats had routinely engaged in. Earlier this year, the minority members of the House Rules Committee issued a 147-page report detailing these abuses. The worst are measures that suppress debate and allow the Republican leadership to ram bills through without any real examination of their provisions. ...
Although few Republicans will speak on the record about such abuses for fear of retaliation, it is a growing topic of private conversation. Earlier this year, The Washington Post quoted one leadership aide as lamenting, “It took Democrats 40 years to get as arrogant as we have become in 10.”
It was only a matter of time before the petty abuse of power morphed into actual corruption. That is the significance of the growing scandal involving lobbyists Jack Abramoff, Mike Scanlon and others. Last week, Scanlon pleaded guilty to defrauding Indian tribes who had paid Abramoff and Scanlon to lobby for their gambling interests in Congress. ...
I believe that the root of the current wave of scandal involving Republicans is that the party’s governing element in Washington has completely lost sight of the reason they were elected in the first place. Grass-roots Republicans support the party because it is the party of small government. Those who like big government, who always want Washington to do more and take on more responsibility, vote Democratic.
So when Republicans begin to ape the Democrats by proposing endless pork-barrel projects and lavish new drug benefits for the elderly, while not even pretending to care about the budget deficit, it makes rank-and-file Republicans wonder why they should remain in a party that has little meaningful difference from the Democrats. Many are going to stay home on Election Day next year, I predict.
Which explains why Republican stalwarts will soon be asking the question, “Randy Cunningham who?” Should Democrats manage to make folks like Cunningham, DeLay, Libby, and Abramoff symbols of the GOP, and cast the 2006 elections as a choice between corruption and competence, voters might be even more ready than they already seem to throw out the bums in charge in D.C. Perhaps it’s time for Republicans to look back at the opening sentence of their Contract with America, which promised to “restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives.”
READ MORE: “Corrupt Intentions,” by Michael Kinsley (Slate); “Brazen Conspiracy” (The Washington Post); “Ethics Cloud Grows Wider over GOP,” by Gail Russell Chaddock (The Christian Science Monitor); “The Fall of the One-Party Empire,” by Jonathan Schell (The Nation); “Wright and Wrong and Cunningham: The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page’s Long-Term Memory Loss,” by Jack Shafer (Slate); “Scandal Land,” by Robert Schlesinger (The Huffington Post); “What Else Did Cunningham Do? ” by Steve Benen (The Carpetbagger Report); “This Is How They Do It: Lie, Rinse, Repeat” (State of the Day); “Who’ll Fill Cunningham’s Seat?” (The Carpetbagger Report); “For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Scanlon Deal Has Sounded a Death Knell for the Republican Revolution of 1994,” by Terence Samuel (The American Prospect).