When the Mark Foley scandal broke, like a lot of people, I thought it would definitely reinforce negative perceptions of the GOP House, maybe upset social conservatives, and probably cost the Republicans Foley's own Florida seat. But it's now rolling through the landscape like a tornado, with incredible velocity and early indications of serious political damage. And there's no better indication of the potential implications than the immediate infighting the scandal has produced among Republicans themselves.
House Majority Leader John Boehner is explicitly laying responsibility for the failure to investigate Foley on his putative chieftain, House Speaker Denny Hastert. The head of the House Republican campaign committee, Tom Reynolds of New York, has been implicated as an early recipient of info on Foley's indiscretions, and you better believe all those hungry GOP recipients of NRCC cash will be distancing themselves from the money man pronto (Reynolds himself is now probably in trouble in his own district, which could be a mite distracting).
But the really big sign of GOP chaos came in today's Washington Times, which editorially called for Hastert's immediate resignation as Speaker.
Those of you who have never lived in the Washington area may not be familiar with the WaTimes. Its publisher is none other than the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. But its basic function in Washington is to serve up the reddest of partisan red meat for the Emerald City's Republicans. In many ways, it's a throwback to the political press of the nineteenth century, with blatant editorializing of news content and relentlessly partisan headlines. A whole generation of Democratic political operatives in DC (myself included) have learned through painful experience to ignore phone calls from WaTimes "reporters" like Don Lambro, whose special talent is to turn even the most careful and benign comment into a "Dems in Disarray" piece. Compared to these birds, the talking heads on Fox News are indeed relatively "fair and balanced."
So when the WaTimes calls for Hastert's head, it really is news. And though I may be wrong about this, it's hard to imagine that this thunderbolt was not telegraphed in advance to the White House and other GOP poohbahs (either way, it's not how the Right-Wing Machine usually works, is it?)
Sure, serious movement conservative types have never much liked the ol' wrestling coach. He was fine as the bumbling, avuncular front-man for Tom DeLay, but ever since the Hammer went down, there's been barely submerged grumbling on the Right that House Republicans can and should do better. A lot of observers figured that the House GOP would probably dump Hastert after the elections, blaming him for Republican losses, even if they held on to control. This is not something you want to do in the homestretch of a midterm campaign, particularly when your national message is that Republicans are sober and resolved and united, as compared to those crazy and fractious Democrats.
No matter what happens to Hastert, the Foley scandal has clearly scrambled the legendary talking-points unity of the GOP. My personal favorite comment was Newt Gingrich's suggestion on Fox News Sunday that his successors sat on the Foley scandal because they were afraid they'd be accused of "gay-bashing" if they dimed out the frisky Floridian.
This is certainly an interesting take on the situation, since (a) who knew that the eager gay-bashers of the House GOP leadership were worried about being suspected of gay-bashing? (b) this line of reasoning implies that Hastert and company should have known there was a gay sexual subtext to Foley's emails, which is precisely what they are all denying, and (c) the Newtster also seems to assume that people who support gay rights approve of a 52-year-old Member of Congress propositioning minors who also happen to be the lowest and most vulnerable of congressional employees.
But maybe I'm selling Newt short here, since implication (c) was explicitly advanced by none other than the Wall Street Journal editorial board today.
[I]n today's politically correct culture, it's easy to understand how senior Republicans might well have decided they had no grounds to doubt Mr. Foley merely because he was gay and a little too friendly in emails. Some of those liberals now shouting the loudest for Mr. Hastert's head are the same voices who tell us that the larger society must be tolerant of private lifestyle choices, and certainly must never leap to conclusions about gay men and young boys.
So perhaps the current disarray is temporary, and this is where the conservative zeitgeist is going next: Foley was a fifth-column Liberal and Sodomite in the GOP ranks, a crypto-Democrat in fact; Hastert's big mistake was in tolerating such deviants; and the real fault lies in the godless, relativistic culture that would openly rule Washington if Democrats regain Congress.
If this story-line seems exceptionally perverse (and it is), it's no more perverse than the argument of some conservative Catholics that the clerical sexual abuse scandal is attributable entirely to a gay cabal in Catholic seminaries.
It will be very interesting to see over the next few days if Republicans continue to fall out like thieves, or fall into a line of attack that sacrifices a few colleagues to the broader effort of demonizing Democrats and absolving the GOP of any sins other than insufficient fidelity to the right-wing cause.
UPDATE: Over at TAPPED, Adele Stan comes down decisively in favor of the blame-it-on-the-moral-relativists theory of the emerging Republican take on Foley. --