By David Ignatius
Friday, October 6, 2006
It's too late for the Democrats to forge coherent positions on Iraq or tax policy before the November elections. But fortune has presented them with a mission that can be summed up in a simple sentence: They must be the party of accountability and reform.
The pollsters report that nearly two-thirds of the country now believes that America is heading in the wrong direction. The events of the past several weeks offer a devastating argument for the Democrats of why that is so. With the Republicans in control of the executive and legislative branches, arrogance has become a way of life. In a series of widely disparate cases -- from ignoring the ethics problems of former House majority leader Tom DeLay to refusing recommendations to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to covering up the egregious conduct of Rep. Mark Foley -- the Republican leadership's instinct has been political self-protection rather than accountability and effective government.
The Democrats are talking about a culture of corruption in Washington, but what are they going to do about it? That's the question Democrats should address over the next month if they want a mandate for change. If they win the House of Representatives, will the Democrats embark on a two-year binge of investigations and score-settling? Or will they get serious about solving the country's problems?
The challenge for the Democrats, if they do triumph in November, will be to break out of the partisan straitjacket that constricts American politics. That has been the real inner demon of the Republicans -- they appeared to care more about their party and its prerogatives than about the country's welfare. The Democrats, in recent years, have drunk deep from that same poisoned chalice, and they need to stop.
The Democrats' first priority next year should be ethics reforms that address the gross misconduct that surfaced in the DeLay and Jack Abramoff scandals. They should start by seeking GOP co-sponsorship for new legislation on lobbying and campaign finance. The Republicans will try to paint Democrats in the next Congress as liberal fanatics bent on revenge. The Democrats should answer with a spirit of bipartisanship -- an offer to work with the Republicans on effective oversight of the executive branch and congressional reform. If a Democratic victory in November becomes an exercise in "payback," the public rightly will be angry.
To see how far the Republicans have strayed from accountability, it's useful to recall their response to the DeLay scandal. At every opportunity, they tried to evade, obstruct and bully. When the House ethics committee admonished DeLay in late 2004 for ethics violations, the GOP leaders stonewalled. First they changed the Republican caucus rules so that DeLay could remain as leader even if he was later indicted. The leaders were forced to back down on that one, but they then fired the conscientious Rep. Joel Hefley as chairman of the ethics committee and purged two other Republican members and several staffers. The effect was to gut the committee, which didn't function at all during 2005.
Even after the Abramoff influence-peddling investigation brought a string of indictments, the GOP-controlled Congress failed to pass lobbying reforms. "These are the worst congressional scandals in three decades, and Congress has done absolutely nothing about it," argues Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign watchdog group Democracy 21.
The case of Rumsfeld partakes of the same circle-the-wagons spirit that has sapped the GOP. Rumsfeld should have resigned after the Abu Ghraib scandal in mid-2004. (Imagine what that signal of accountability might have done to help America's image.) But by early this year, it was obvious even to those in the Bush White House that Rumsfeld had to go. They were moving to ease him out this spring when a parade of retired generals called publicly for his resignation. I'm told that the White House, fearful of being seen as caving in to pressure, backed off at that point and left Rumsfeld in place.
And now we have the Foley scandal, which, even by Washington standards, is a remarkable piece of hypocrisy and cronyism. For at least a year senior House Republicans knew or should have known that Foley had inappropriate communications with House pages. They did nothing -- and the only possible explanation is that they were afraid of political damage. Indeed, they allowed Foley to remain co-chairman of the House caucus on missing and exploited children until the day his revolting messages were disclosed.
The Democrats will benefit from the GOP meltdown to the extent that they offer the country a genuine alternative: In place of scandal, reform; in place of partisanship, cooperation; in place of arrogance, accountability.