Something significant happened on the political front last week. In the midst of Donald Rumsfeld’s trial by fire from hecklers and Porter Goss’s forced resignation as CIA director and George W. Bush’s inexorable fall in the polls, it was easy to underestimate the importance of Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s latest little scandal. After all, he is a Kennedy, and at some point in the future, Kennedy scandals will cease to be news since they are so common they will be dog-bites-man and not man-bites-dog.
Yet as Kennedy flew to the Mayo Clinic for yet more drug dependency treatment, he took Democrats’ hopes of running against the Republican “culture of corruption” with him.
What’s that you say? It’s just one little episode that will quickly fade to the back pages? Quite the contrary. This congressman with the celebrity name grabbed everyone’s attention, and he reminded the public in an unforgettable way that sleaze and corruption and special favors on Capitol Hill are very much bipartisan. That’s what the American people believe anyway, and now they have had it confirmed in new headlines.
As 2006 opened, things looked bright for the Democrats on the corruption front. Congressman Tom DeLay was on trial in Texas, the Vice President’s chief of staff Lewis Libby had resigned upon indictment in the CIA leak imbroglio, and lobbyist Jack Abramoff was spilling the rancid beans on a host of GOP luminaries from Ralph Reed and Conrad Burns to Bob Ney and John Doolittle. Republican indictments aplenty from the ranks of congressmen and congressional aides loomed, and Karl Rove was rumored to be on the verge of joining the list via the Libby/Valerie Plame case. Democrats were salivating, much as Republicans did in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Democratic corruption cases accumulated.
Slowly, though, the creature from the sleaze lagoon has been undergoing a bipartisan mutation. First, there were the stories about Democratic Congressman Bill Jefferson of Louisiana. Jefferson and his family may well have benefited financially from some of his official actions in an all-too-familiar, Edwin Edwards-like, Bayou State way. Then some unsettling information began to surface about longtime West Virginia Democratic Congressman Alan Mollohan. He also has possibly enriched himself in office in questionable ways, and under pressure from his party’s leadership, Mollohan had to step down from the senior Democratic post on the House Ethics Committee. Next, an old reliable, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia), resurfaced and struck a Capitol Hill policeman after he failed to recognize her as a Member and tried to stop her as she entered a House building.
These three Democratic cases gave the Republicans some rhetorical fodder, but none could fairly be described as a national figure (with McKinney coming closest after her prior encounters with controversy). That’s where Patrick Kennedy entered the crime scene.
The reason Kennedy matters so much is that his scrape fits the profile of memorable scandals that will stick in the collective public consciousness. First, there is a long pattern of activity by Patrick Kennedy and many other Kennedys that has left people with the clear impression that this family considers its members to be special, operating above the rules for the rest of us mortals. (How many people did you hear say, “Like father, like son”, when they heard the news?) Second, every American could put himself or herself in Patrick Kennedy’s position. What would the police have done if any of us not named Kennedy had side-swiped a police car, crashed into a barricade, and appeared to be intoxicated? Few police departments operate the kind of taxi service for possible DUI suspects that apparently exists for a select upper crust on Capitol Hill. Third, the American electorate has proved resistant to the Democratic theme of corruption all along because they have never bought the premise that one party is a convention of devils and the other a chorus of angels. Dozens of Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been involved in well-publicized scandals of all types over the last few decades. Fourth, one doesn’t need to be a political aficionado to know immediately that Kennedy is a Democrat.
This last point is especially damning for Democrats. Whenever any Democratic candidate this year starts to paint a dark picture of GOP misdeeds, all a Republican candidate need do is to mention Patrick Kennedy. The news media will also have to balance its corruption stories on Republicans by featuring the roll call of Democratic miscreants, led by Kennedy. Four is not a negligible number. Inevitably, specific congressmen in both parties who are linked to corruption will be targeted for their alleged sins, and they may have to pay the ultimate electoral price for them. (Kennedy won’t be one. His Rhode Island constituents predictably lined up, Oprah-like, to express their sympathy for the local star and latest “victim” of the “Kennedy curse.”) In a few places, Democrats may still be able to make corruption a central concern. For instance, because of Governor Bob Taft’s ethics troubles that have led to his deep and broad unpopularity, it’s possible that Ohio will see a statewide electoral kickback to the Democrats. But as a cutting, salient, across-the-board issue, “the culture of corruption” may be moribund nationally for 2006.
Luckily for the Democrats, just about everything else in this election year is still going their way. The Iraq War is not just divisive, but with each passing month more Americans are saying we shouldn’t have gone in, and need to get out. We have either a very determined or an exceptionally stubborn President–depending on your party ID–and so far he’s shown no inclination to start substantial troop withdrawals. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has become the new Robert S. McNamara of Vietnam infamy, a permanent lightning rod for criticism whose persona suggests an administration with a Pollyanna-ish view of the war and a determination to see light at the end of a tunnel that most Americans fear is shrouded in permanent darkness.
Then there are the skyrocketing, and probably enduringly higher, gasoline prices. This one factor appears to have convinced Americans, incorrectly, that the current very strong economy is teetering on the edge of another Great Depression. The continuing inability of government and private entities to regenerate the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina is a running sore that generates unending and maddening horror stories.
The result for the Republicans is as plain as a wart on the nose of Miss America. President Bush is flirting with historic lows in popularity ratings, scraping the lower 30s and in many states already in the 20s. Approval of Congress is in the mid-20s, and while this doesn’t help either party, the Republicans run the place and suffer disproportionately.
Democrats will have to try hard not to gain seats in the House, Senate, and statehouses. The Crystal Ball currently has Democrats up +6 to 8 in the House, +2 or 3 in the Senate, and +3 or 4 in Governorships. (Updates on all races will be unveiled over May and June.) With a little less than six months remaining until election day, the big question is whether Democrats can expand upon those gains. They must roughly double them to re-take the House or the Senate. Oddly, this depends less on the Democrats than on the Republicans, the party in power and the politicians who can more easily control the agenda and take the initiative. So here are the questions for the Republicans to answer:
- Can President Bush find a way to regenerate his shrinking Presidency? Window dressing (speeches, staff changes) will make little difference at this point. After a year in the polling cellar, Bush may be due for some good luck. The alternative, equally likely, is increasing irrelevance as the lamest lame duck since Nixon.
- Can the Republican Congress shake off their divisions and torpor, and pass some substantial legislation that gives them bragging rights in the fall?
- Will a sizeable number of American troops be withdrawn from Iraq within a year, with the announcement made by summer’s end? (If the headline is too close to the election, it will look too political to be of much help to the GOP, or maybe even to be believed.)
- Will gas prices subside enough after Labor Day to make Americans forget about their angst and anger at the pumps well before election day? This may be the key to GOP hopes of getting credit for a sound economy, without which they have little real hope of staving off Democratic victories.
- Will major, visible progress be made in rebuilding the Gulf Coast? Will the government emergency response to any devastating hurricanes this summer show dramatic improvement?
The months for wishful thinking by both sides are slipping away. The die for a midterm congressional election is often cast by late summer. The questions only get tougher, and the room for maneuverability only shrinks from here on out. The Democrats have less ability to maneuver because they run nothing in Washington. Yet the Republicans have converted their first-term Bush electoral mansion into a tiny hovel no longer able to contain their candidates and expansive electoral fortunes. If they plan on holding Congress, the GOP had best add on a few rooms, and weather-proof them before the gales of November.