Friday, October 06, 2006

The Games Politicians Play

I make my living off the evening news
Just give me something-something I can use
People love it when you lose,
They love dirty laundry
(Don Henley – Dirty Laundry)

I don’t watch sports unless one of my kids is playing. But I do watch politics, partially for the same reason that some folks are sports spectators. But if that were the only reason I watched politics, I would probably not care enough to pay much attention. Unlike a sports event that will have little real impact on my life, politics can impact my life and the lives of many people for years to come. It’s more than just a game, so I watch it.

I have been approached several times about running for office, but I don’t do it. Just because I watch and analyze something does not mean I would be good at or would enjoy actually doing that thing. As much as people hate the idea, it requires resources (volunteers + money) to get your message out to the voters. Since most candidates don’t have enough cash to self finance, they have to be confident enough in themselves and in their message to be willing to ask people to give them money (and/or time) for their campaign.

I do not begrudge the fact that those that are willing to do the hard work of fundraising are the ones whose names end up on the ballot, much the way that most sports fans don’t have a problem with the athletes playing while they pay to watch them.

Being an interested spectator, I watch the current circus going on in Washington, D.C. as the fallout from the Foley scandal with a kind of morbid curiosity. I really can’t blame the MSM for eating this up. They are what they are. They love dirty laundry, as noted in Henley’s lyrics. The rest of the world cannot comprehend how the balance of power in the world’s only superpower could teeter on such mundanities as who sent what dirty instant message to whom at what time. But that is precisely what Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) is in hot water over.

Mr. Hastert stands accused of knowing that Foley was a predator of minor male pages, but did nothing to stop it. In another political climate, this brouhaha would cause a minor tempest. It probably would not even be investigated by the ethics committee. But this is not another political climate. It is just a few weeks prior to midterm elections where the determination of who gets to set the nation’s political agenda for the next two years could easily go to either party, depending on the outcomes of a very few congressional races.

Although Hastert’s wound appears minor, enough blood is flowing for the Pelosi-led Democratic sharks to strike repeatedly in hopes of tearing the gash wide enough to make the injury worse. Hiding behind faux concern for minor House pages and hoping that Hastert’s problem will rub off on his party in general, they seek to keep this story alive and on fire long enough to further demoralize already glum GOP voters and to shift enough independents their way to gain victory next month.

But if that’s all there was to it, we’d already be seeing the issue die down, since the facts in the case bear no resemblance to the resultant furor. People would quickly discern that it was a purely political ploy, and Democrats would have to drop it or risk backlash. But Mr. Hastert is being (quietly by some and more enthusiastically by others) thrown to the sharks by members of his own party.

Let’s face it; Mr. Hastert’s tenure has produced little to enthuse Republicans and much to chagrin them (see my post on the 109th Congress). Hastert rose to power after Newt Gringrich went down in flames after trying to take down Bill Clinton over Clinton’s sex scandal, much as the angry Left would love to take down President Bush over—well, just about anything. Conservative Congressman Bob Livingston then was set to jump into the speakership when his own sex scandal became news. The low-key, but somewhat conservative and certifiably monogamous Hastert became the unlikely person to fill the role.

Since that time, Hastert has repeatedly been unable to get the GOP to unite behind some of the president’s and the GOP’s most important pieces of legislation. Under his watch, non-war-related domestic spending has risen dramatically, and wasteful earmarking has gone through the roof. The Abramoff scandal took place on his watch. Hastert’s leadership has frequently been seen as ineffective, while underlings have appeared to be running the show behind the scenes.

In short, some of Hastert’s GOP colleagues (as well as some conservative pundits) sense an opportunity to be rid of Hastert as speaker. So they are either refusing to come to his aid, or are willingly pushing him toward the sharks under the guise of appearing to do the right thing. Since all of his colleagues in the House (except those retiring) have to stand for election in a few weeks, some are simply trying to keep clear of the situation in hopes of remaining unsullied by it.

Republicans that want to throw Hastert to the sharks had better think deeply about what they really want, because they may get their wish. They are playing a dangerous political game, but the outcome of their actions may be far more than what they are bargaining for. Former Secretary of State James Baker said (here), “If they throw Denny Hastert off the sled to slow down the wolves, it won't be long before you'll be crying, 'Hey, you've got to throw somebody else over because they knew about it too. '” (I know that adding Baker’s quote results in a mixing of metaphors, but I’m no English major). I’m not defending Hastert. I’m simply making political observations.

It’s a race to November 7, and a lot can happen between now and then. But if the GOP loses control of one or both chambers of Congress, it will be because they have worked to earn that outcome.

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