GOP Ignores Lessons of Democrats' Past Mistakes

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2005 6:27 PM

In response to the criminal charges he now faces, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has offered up the time-honored defense of Washington politicians: My enemies are out to get me.

In a Capitol Hill news conference, DeLay lashed out, calling the Texas prosecutor who brought the felony charge against him an "unabashed partisan zealot" and a "fanatic." DeLay's supporters echoed the theme. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) -- the man who will fill in for DeLay -- said: "Unfortunately, Tom DeLay's effectiveness as Majority Leader is the best explanation for what happened in Texas today."

It didn't take long for DeLay's supporters to get the talking points. In a statement e-mailed to reporters hours after news of the indictment broke, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, leader of the Traditional Values Coalition, said DeLay was "a Christian man" and accused prosecutor Ronnie Earle of exacting "political retribution."

Yet, The Washington Post's Jeffrey Smith reported last year that "Earle, an elected Democrat who oversees the state's Public Integrity Unit, previously prosecuted four elected Republicans and 12 Democrats for corruption or election law violations."

And the Associated Press reported last December that Earle had prosecuted some of the biggest Democratic names in the state, including, "former Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis, former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox, former State Treasurer Warren Harding and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough."

Buried under a sea of political scandal in the late 1980s and early 1990s, congressional Democrats often evoked the same defense. And it didn't work .

"Common Cause has made itself the handmaiden of a partisan political initiative," Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright (Tex.) complained in a May 18, 1988, press release -- the day the nonpartisan watchdog group filed an ethics complaint against him in the House.

Wright resigned the next year in disgrace. Republicans exploited Wright's troubles and a series of other Democratic foibles to put an end to the Democrats' four-decade reign in Washington in 1994.

The reason was simple: It is entirely possible both that your enemies are out to get you and that you did exactly what you are being accused of doing. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

Ask Bill Clinton.

DeLay is innocent until proven guilty. Yet whatever his intentions, the timing of Earle's indictment couldn't have been worse for the Republican Party. Going into next year's midterm elections, the second most powerful person in the House is under indictment, and the most powerful person in the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), is being investigated by both the Securities and Exchange Commission and federal prosecutors. In addition, a special prosecutor is investigating whether top White House officials may have leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters.

On top of that, the White House's top procurement officer, David Safavian, was arrested last week on charges of lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with the federal government. And Abramoff, once one of Washington's top lobbyists, is being investigated for his lobbying activities on behalf of Indian tribes and his role in paying for overseas trips for DeLay. DeLay has said he didn't know Abramoff paid the expenses.

But with the voting public so inured to political scandal in Washington, all of those things together might not mean much for the party were it not already in deep water with the voters over the war in Iraq, its response to Hurricane Katrina and the summer's spike in gas prices. Bush's approval rating in some polls hovers around 40 percent, and Congress's is even lower.

Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said, "If people were confident about the direction of the country, happy with performance of the White House and Congress, it's not as big of an issue. But when you put it in this in the current political environment, Democrats don't have to work very hard" to damage Republicans.

Walter's comments raise the question about whether Democrats will make ethics and scandal front-burner issues next year. Walter makes another salient point when she points out that approval ratings for Democrats aren't much higher right now than they are for Republicans.

Can Democrats coalesce around scandal and ethics as a unifying theme, after largely failing to do so with Iraq, Katrina, tax cuts and other major issues? Difficult to say.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) fired a shot yesterday, saying in a statement: "The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people."

But when I called a top Democratic congressional staffer to discuss the broader political implications, the person was skittish and wanted go "on background."

Contrast the Democrats' tepid approach to that of the Republicans of the late 1980s and early 1990s. You could hardly turn on C-Span back then without seeing a pudgy, white-haired back-bencher from Georgia by the name of Newt Gingrich inveighing against the rampant corruption and arrogance of the Democratic Party.

True enough, there are Democrats in Congress today with their own ethics problems, complicating efforts to tag the GOP as the party of low standards. But the same was true of the Republicans when they were in the minority party, and that didn't stop them from pressing their case against the Democrats. The bottom line is leaders are always held to a higher standard than back-benchers.

For a long time, Democrats acted as if no one was listening or cared. Then came November 1994.

Will Republicans repeat that mistake?

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