Polls Suggest Ethics Issues Could Haunt GOP

By Thomas B. Edsall and Chris Cillizza
Sunday, April 30, 2006

The day before the Republican House leadership struggled for five hours to bring lobby reform legislation to the floor, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) declared that voters have little or no interest in ethics legislation.

"Do I think they care about it? No, I don't," Doolittle told a reporter. Doolittle said that during the April 7-23 recess, he did not hear "anything about Jack Abramoff," the central figure in a lobbying scandal.

Still, Doolittle, who had been linked to Abramoff, sent letters and e-mails to about 80,000 Mormon constituents declaring his innocence. "I have done nothing to bring shame to myself, my family, or my church," Doolittle wrote to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to local papers. Those same local papers reported on April 18 that Doolittle had hired Virginia lawyer David G. Barger to handle legal issues related to his relationship with Abramoff.

Moreover, voters appear to be interested in the ethics issues. A number of polls show the Abramoff lobbying investigation and the guilty plea by former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) to bribery charges appear to be having a negative effect on the public's view of the Republican Party in general, as well as on legislators, such as Doolittle, who have been linked to Abramoff.

For three years, Democrats have pounded on the theme of a Republican "culture of corruption." Some political strategists have questioned whether the corruption issue has much traction with voters, but the surveys suggest the Democrats may have tapped into something that could boost their prospects in the November elections.

On April 10, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found, for example, that 52 percent of respondents said they trusted the Democratic Party "to do a better job handling corruption in Washington," while 27 percent said they trusted the Republican Party more. On April 20, a Pew Research Center survey found that by 44 to 28 percent, voters said the Democrats "could do a better job in reforming government."

Six political scientists of varying political leanings generally agreed -- albeit cautiously -- that corruption, together with issues such as the war in Iraq and the economy, has the potential to reach a "tipping point" endangering GOP control of either the House, the Senate, or both.

Stanford University political scientist David Brady said corruption tends to be a bipartisan issue because voters distrust most politicians regardless of party. "All that said, it does appear to me that the Republicans are vulnerable in the 2006 elections to a national force which combines corruption, Iraq, fears about the economy et cetera in a fashion where the Republicans could lose Congress," Brady said.

Testing 2008 Themes Abroad

The unofficial 2008 presidential campaign this weekend went on a European vacation -- to a French-speaking country, no less. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke Friday in Belgium -- one of two likely 2008 contenders to appear before European policymakers and intellectuals at the Brussels Forum.

Former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards (D-N.C.), another potential 2008 candidate, is scheduled to speak today at the forum, which is held by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a small but highly regarded foundation and think tank based in Washington.

McCain's remarks outlined his view of the United States' place on the world stage, and focused heavily on the building crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

He urged "immediate" action by the U.N. Security Council in the form of "multilateral sanctions" against Iran, and refused to rule out the possibility of using military force against Tehran. "To preemptively forswear options is to weaken our diplomatic hand," McCain said. "In the end, there is only one thing worse than military action, and that is a nuclear-armed Iran."

While McCain's remarks began the conference, Edwards's are slated to bring it to a close.

In a prepared text of his remarks, Edwards offered a critique of Bush administration policy, focusing on the need to be more than just the strongest nation in the world. "The world knows that our country is willing to use its muscle," Edwards said. "Here's what they want to know from us. Are we willing to lead on the great moral issues that face the world?"

For Edwards, his speech is aimed at bolstering his foreign policy credentials and outlining a global vision in the run-up to the 2008 race. The former senator struggled to convince voters in 2004 that he was ready to be president after spending just six years in the Senate.

McCain, on the other hand, has long been one of the Republicans' leading voices on foreign policy matters but continues to deliver speeches such as Friday's in Belgium to cement that image in the minds of voters.

Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company