Fear and Loathing In the GOP

By Byron York
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Even in the grand tradition of scapegoating in American politics, J. Dennis Hastert's current plight stands out. The former high school coach-turned-accidental speaker of the House spent last week as the unlikeliest of fall guys for a sex scandal that involved a closeted gay Republican congressman, underage male House pages and unseemly instant messages. As fear and loathing spread through panicky preelection Republicans, Hastert looked like a goner, then a survivor, then a goner again and then, well, who knows.

"I was inclined at first to believe that Denny Hastert should resign," conservative activist Paul Weyrich told me on Wednesday.

But then Weyrich heard from Hastert, in one of the dozens of calls the speaker made last week. ("He called me, I didn't call him," Weyrich stressed.) Hastert explained that he hadn't known about Foley's graphic sex talk with a teenage House page. And the speaker argued passionately, Weyrich said, that he had properly handled the so-called "overly friendly" e-mail from Foley to another former page. Ultimately, Weyrich was convinced. He would not call for Hastert's resignation.

Hastert's defense strategy has worked -- so far. But the Foley affair has exposed deep fissures within the GOP a few weeks before midterm elections; when the story broke, everyone seemed to be in a different place. Some are in what one top House aide calls the "knee-jerk" camp -- those who called for Hastert's resignation right away. Others are in a camp awaiting more evidence. Still others are in the smell-a-rat camp, suspecting that Democrats were behind the whole thing. And finally, some are in the this-is-proof-of-America's-moral- decline camp, condemning Republican and Democratic leaders alike. No one camp was able to take control, thus allowing Hastert to continue as the longest-serving Republican speaker in history.

On Thursday -- the same day that the House ethics committee announced an investigation and issued dozens of subpoenas for documents and testimony -- the speaker held a news conference. "The bottom line," he said, "is that we're taking responsibility, because ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before: The buck stops here."

At least until November. The Foley scandal has become very much about Hastert, the Republican leadership and the party's permanence in power. Toward the end of our conversation, Weyrich pointed to the post-Watergate election of 1974, when Republicans took a horrendous beating. GOP pollster Richard Wirthlin, Weyrich explained, coined the phrase "the embarrassed Republican vote," referring to those party members who were so appalled by events that they didn't vote.

"I think we may see the embarrassed Republican vote back again," Weyrich said.

One might assume that Hastert's supporters were most worried about the knee-jerk camp. And they were, early last week, when the conservative Washington Times published its editorial "Resign, Mr. Speaker."

But a few days later, the pro-Hastert forces came to believe that the knee-jerkers had done the speaker a favor.

In the normal course of a Washington scandal, as they explained this scenario to me, many days and many revelations would have to pass before a Republican would become so bold as to float the idea of dumping Hastert. By coming out so quickly against him, the Washington Times and its allies forced conservatives to take sides right away. Most of them, uncertain about the evidence, cautiously sided with Hastert.

"What the Washington Times did, in my mind, is they advanced it," the top House aide told me. "The question was, 'Do you think the Washington Times is right, or are they overreacting?' "

As it turned out, few chose to support resignation, and Hastert survived the initial challenge.

But the good news for the speaker may be temporary, because his support among conservatives is infinitely complicated by his political baggage. It's no secret that conservatives are unhappy with the performance of many GOP officeholders in Washington, from President Bush on down. In particular, they don't like the party's abandonment of fiscal discipline and its failure to restrain the growth of government. They've been complaining for quite a while now, but the Foley scandal has given them a new reason to take shots at the Republican leadership.

When I called David Bossie -- a former Hill investigator who heads an organization called Citizens United and favors Hastert's resignation -- he asked what I thought about the speaker's performance. I told him I wasn't sure. "You're not sure about Hastert on spending?" he asked. "Or on earmarks, or on the utter failure of leadership since he fell into the speakership?"

Bossie seemed genuinely appalled by Hastert's handling of the Foley matter, but he listed other reasons why conservatives are unhappy with Hastert's House. Many conservatives would probably support a change in leadership should Republicans maintain control of the House in November. But they just don't want to rock the boat now, a few weeks before the elections

If we win, they say, then we'll get a new speaker. And if we lose, it's not our problem.

As the week went on, a lot more Republicans joined the smell-a-rat faction. Although they conceded problems with the way the leadership had handled Foley, they were suspicious of how the information came out in dribs and drabs, keeping the story alive day after day. Some of it seemed to originate on a Web site, http://stopsexpredators.blogspot.com , that no one knew much about. Although they didn't have any solid evidence, some Republicans suspected that Democrats were behind it. The speaker was among them. "Hastert believes that with everything in him," Weyrich told me.

Others regarded the Foley matter as a cultural issue as much as a political one. Last Monday, the leaders of a coalition of conservative organizations called the Arlington Group held a conference call to discuss Foley. It included Weyrich, Focus on the Family Chairman James Dobson, American Values President Gary Bauer, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and American Family Association Chairman Donald Wildmon, among others.

The men agreed that they didn't know enough about the scandal to condemn anyone in the GOP leadership. But they thought that the leadership had gone easy on Foley because, sensitive to charges that Republicans are intolerant, they did not want to be seen as gay-bashers. The coalition members asked Weyrich to draft a statement.

"We are concerned that the early warnings of Mr. Foley's odd behavior toward young male pages may have been overlooked or treated with deference, fearing a backlash from the radical gay rights movement because of Mr. Foley's sexual orientation," the statement said. "It appears that the integrity of the conservative majority has given way to political correctness, trading the virtues of decency and respect for that of tolerance and diversity."

Wildmon later told me that the Foley scandal represents something of a crossroads for the GOP. "Part of the problem Republicans have right now is they have to make up their minds what kind of party they are going to be," he said. "Are they going to be a party of values voters, or are they going to be a party that is for diversity and all the other good buzzwords?"

For all his protestations -- "I'm just a little bitty old preacher in Mississippi" -- Wildmon is an intensely political strategist. But others on the conference call seemed truly dismayed by both parties. "I am not an R, and I am not a D," Phil Burress, president of the Ohio-based Citizens for Community Values, which is affiliated with Focus on the Family, told me.

"Values voters gave up on that a long time ago," he said. "We are thoroughly disgusted with Congress and the way they are conducting business."


Byron York covers the White House for National Review.

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