O Frenzy of Frenzies!

Our National Fascination with Scandal...And How It Could Affect the 2006 Midterm Elections


Your humble servant at the Crystal Ball is embarrassed but compelled to admit that he is drawn to political scandal as others are to pornography. Over the decades I have published several books devoted to the subject, with the lurid titles of Feeding Frenzy, Dirty Little Secrets, and Peepshow. Yes, part of the motivation was sales potential. To be honest, the scandal books fared much better than my tomes on campaign finance, which were read solely by my immediate family, and then only under threat of excommunication. Yet it was far more than sales. The underbelly of politics attracts an observer much like the red-light district in a big city: You want to see what’s going down.

And so we come to the cornucopia of scandal unfolding before us in Washington and beyond. Bribery! Sleazy lobbying! Intrigue and spies! Money laundering! Fraud! Seduction and the lure of illicit sex! And so much more…This is truly the Christmas season that keeps on giving. We leave to others the unfolding specifics of Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay, CIA Leak-gate, Jack Abramoff & Company, the emerging K Street excesses in Watergate Hotel bedroom suites, and so much more. Here we simply want to share three lessons we’ve learned about scandal, and how it fits into the scheme of 2006 politics.

  1. Scandal is only rarely the premier election issue. The great Watergate Landslide of 1974, when Democrats elected 75 of the 90 House freshmen in the wake of President Nixon’s resignation and subsequent pardon by President Ford, may be the exception to this rule, but even in that year a nasty recession played a major role. Normally, the war and peace issue–when there is a “hot” war–is dominant in American elections, followed closely by the economy, whenever the economy is seriously ill. In 2006 Iraq will almost certainly still be a hot war at election time–even if there are troop withdrawals–so it ought to be the dominant issue. Right now, Americans are dissatisfied with the Bush Iraq policy, but they are far from sold on the Democrats’ alternative (if anybody can figure out what that alternative is). Judging by the public opinion polls, Americans are convinced we are in, or on the verge of, a recession so the economy may be important for 2006, too. On the other hand, since the reality is that the economy is in pretty good shape, and the Bush administration is finally emphasizing that point, it is possible that the economy will actually temper Republican losses in November. Scandal is in third place. That doesn’t make it unimportant, and if the “culture of corruption” issue continues to gather steam, as appears likely, then it could end up slicing off a few points from most Republicans (and maybe all incumbents of both parties–though we believe the GOP will inevitably suffer most). In the end, scandal will probably have the most effect on: (1) the Republican candidates most directly tied to the unfolding scandals, and (2) open seats, where the “time for a change” theme should add some points to Democratic candidates. Of course, if the district has a 15-point GOP tilt, then losing 3-5 percent to the scandal issue is not going to affect the outcome. As always, it is the marginal seats–where incumbents or open seat candidates have only a small party edge–that will show us the most revealing effects of the scandal issue. And no matter how you define “marginal,” there aren’t all that many marginal districts these days.
  2. Voters rarely follow or understand the specifics of scandals; rather, it is the overall impression–the smell–they take away from the headlines that affects their voting choices. You’d have to devote half your waking hours to understand the ins and outs and names and places of the Valerie Plame/CIA Leak-gate scandal, and 99 percent of the voters don’t. But they do know a senior White House official has been indicted, and that raises eyebrows. Most voters have no idea who Jack Abramoff is, or for that matter who Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham are, but the stench of corruption is gradually wafting into America’s nooks and crannies. The next ten thousand headlines about scandal in 2006 will increase the sulphuric content of the smell, and they will give voters an unpleasant snoot-full.
  3. Scandal has its greatest effect when combined with the dangerous sixth-year election in a President’s second term. By the middle of the second term, voters are usually tiring of a President’s many controversies, and the stresses and strains of his inevitable unpopular decisions have built up to earthquake potential. Just look at some of the post-World War II examples. Truman’s sixth year (1950) produced GOP gains in both the House and Senate with a toxic combination of corruption, Korea, and the alleged and real march of Communism at home and abroad; just two years later, the GOP takeover was completed. Democrats got their revenge in Eisenhower’s sixth year (1958), when an ill-timed autumn scandal involving Ike’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, produced a Democratic landslide in both houses of Congress. As mentioned earlier, the Nixon-Ford sixth year (1974) was the granddaddy of scandal elections. The great exception to our rule was 1998, when Democrats gained six House seats and didn’t lose a single Senate seat, even though Republicans had a real chance to add as many as five to their 55-seat majority. The GOP had only itself to blame, insisting on a sure-to-fail impeachment effort against President Clinton, thus rescuing Clinton from himself by turning a sleazy Chief Executive into a sympathetic, hounded figure. There’s a lesson here for Democrats in 2006: Don’t interfere too much with your opponents’ ongoing suicide. Voters aren’t overly impressed with your honesty and integrity either, so keep your preacher’s robes in storage.

It’s the Christmas season and so we’ll close in this time of goodwill by offering our condolences to those ensnared in all these scandals. Some of you are as guilty as original sin, and others have only violated that questionable rule about avoiding the appearance of corruption. We’re not lawyers, and we don’t contribute money. Therefore, our assistance is limited to advice based on long study of this subject. First, if you are truly innocent, then disclose, disclose, disclose–fully, immediately, without hesitation. Turn off the drip, drip, drip torture machine of new, incremental press disclosures. (This awful device isn’t included in Senator McCain’s anti-torture legislation.) If you want to be judged guilty, then go ahead and look guilty by holding back and showing the press how resentful you are at having your virtue questioned.

Our second piece of advice is more practical, perhaps psychological. Get out of Washington, D.C. as much as possible. The political population there thrives on your misfortune. Undoubtedly you remember the line attributed to President Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Tragically, we’ve found that to be untrue. In D.C., even the dogs are fair-weather friends. Their extra-keen senses sniff out the disloyalty all around them, and they follow suit! If you get into trouble and the consensus is, you’re finished, don’t look for helping hands. Look instead for flying boots, kicking you while you’re down. To the scandal-drenched, have a Merry Christmas, but don’t look for a Happy New Year.