Monday, October 16, 2006

Mr. Hastert, Move Out of the Way

The first wave of polls following the Mark Foley scandal is devastating to the Republican outlook for the congressional elections on November 7. Devastating.

The Foley scandal -- and the corresponding bungling of the works by House Speaker Denny Hastert -- is not the biggest issue in the midterm races. But at the margin it is having a very negative impact. One might even call this a tipping point. Metaphorically, it highlights the ongoing GOP problems of corruption, ineptness, mismanagement, and poor judgment.

Whether it’s Gallup, ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, or CNN/USA Today, the polls are all telling the same story: The Republicans are on course to lose the House while the GOP Senate is hanging by a thread.

According to Gallup, government corruption has climbed to the upper ranks of key voter issues, joining Iraq and terrorism. This is exactly where the GOP doesn’t want it to be. Undoubtedly, these new numbers capture a loss of Republican support among security moms and what we can call conservative values voters.

A full 48 percent of likely voters rate corruption among the big-three issues of the day, while the GOP specifically is losing by 20 points on corruption, 17 points on Iraq and, get this, 5 points on terrorism. This last one is tough to swallow, but the damage has been done.

Among likely voters, Gallup shows the Democrats with a 23-point lead, 59-36, for the generic House ballot. Only a month ago, this indicator was locked at 48-48. In addition, respondents say Speaker Hastert should resign, by a 43 to 36 percent margin.

If I were Denny Hastert I would try to be as invisible as possible right about now. Instead, Hastert is holding news conferences in front of graveyard tombstones. Message to Mr. Hastert: The polls are calling for your head. The more you try to explain your way out of the Foley mess the more you crowd out important Republican messages on low-tax economic growth, falling gas prices, the record Dow stock market, and a strong national-security stance against terrorism. These are the messages the GOP must emphasize if it is to stay competitive in the final sprint to the November 7 elections.

Hastert should have stepped aside as speaker more than a week ago, telling voters that he will roll up his sleeves and get to the bottom of the Foley sex scandal in the months ahead. Instead he is making the political problem worse. Every time he appears in public he not only reminds voters of GOP corruption, but of the fact he has done nothing about it.

Jim Colby, the openly gay Republican congressman from Arizona, says Foley’s predatory sexual harassment started in 2001. Kirk Fordham, former staffer to Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, traces it back to 2003. Republican House member John Shimkus says it began a year ago, although he didn’t bother to tell anybody on the Page Board. And Reynolds himself says the problem was fingered last spring. That’s more than an enough anecdotal evidence for voters who have concluded that Hastert knew there was a problem and stood idly by. At the very least, common sense says Hastert should have removed Foley from his leadership positions on the Page Board and the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.

Republicans will get their comeuppance this fall. But the trick for the GOP is to turn this short-run political setback into a long-run positive strategy. The starting point must be a change in the House leadership and a retooling of a tired old message.

In fact, to a good extent it has been a message of failure.

Hastert & Co. failed to abolish the cash-for-legislative-favors scam of budget earmarks running amok. They failed to put in clear rules to curb budgetary spending. They struck out on Social Security reform and savings-account expansion. They did extend the investor tax cuts, but they failed to reform either the corporate or personal tax codes, where wholesale changes could boost worker incomes and lessen wage inequality. (The corporate tax should be abolished altogether.) The bust-the-bank prescription-drug plan had Hastert’s fingerprints all over it. Ditto for the congressional slide toward trade protectionism. Ditto for a 700-mile fence between the U.S. and Mexico. Rather than true immigration reform, we have the Buchanan-Tancredo hate-line on immigration -- a.k.a., a national election loser.

The single strongest most-likely Republican voter bloc is the investor class, where shareholders should be encouraged to get out and vote for tax cuts, limited government, a strong economy, and a roaring stock market. It’s not too late to mobilize this group and at least shave the Democratic vote margin on November 7. But it takes a message to motivate voters.

Mr. Hastert, move out of the way. It’s time for change.