Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Curt Weldon and the conspiracy theory as campaign tactic

Curt Weldon, the embattled suburban Philadelphia Republican congressman, is already well into the predictable cycle of responses employed by politicians who labor under the cloud of scandal: I haven’t been informed of any investigation; if there is an investigation, I didn’t do anything wrong; the timing of this investigation is suspicious, given the impending election, but I will look forward to cooperating fully with those who are unfairly coming after me; this is just a conspiracy concocted by my political enemies; even if it’s just a conspiracy, I am moving on.

It’s worth revisiting Weldon’s claim that he is the victim of a conspiracy. At last check, he is attributing the FBI’s raid on his lobbyist-daughter’s house to, among other people: public interest activist Melanie Sloan (who used to work for a Democrat, and who filed a complaint against Weldon with the FBI two years ago), former President Bill Clinton, a former senior Justice Department official and 9-11 Commission member named Jamie Gorelick, former Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But here’s the part that I don’t get:

1. Do all those people, acting separately or in concert, have the clout to tell the FBI what to do?

2. Isn’t the FBI a part of the Justice Department, which, last I checked, is run by a Bush Republican loyalist named Alberto Gonzalez?

3. In fact, last I checked, isn’t the government (White House, executive agencies, Congress) basically run by Weldon’s fellow Republicans?

4. Are these put-of-power Democrats somehow responsible for impaneling the federal grand jury that, since last May, has sifted wiretap evidence which suggests – although no charges have been filed - that Weldon may have illegally traded on his congressional clout to help his daughter land juicy lobbying contracts with Russian companies and a Serbian foundation?

The likely answers to those questions, of course, are: no, yes, yes, and no. But because Weldon is trying to save his political skin on the eve of his first competitive race in decades, in a district that has been slowly trending Democratic, at a time when the national GOP dearly needs him to hang on, we can hardly expect him to craft a defense grounded in empirical fact. Rather, his defense can best be understood in raw political terms. He is trying to rally his base, by arguing to potentially waffling supporters that he is a victim of his enemies and the bureaucrats and government overreach. (After all, this strategy worked for Democratic Philadelphia mayor John Street, when an FBI bug was found in his office during his re-election drive.)

Nevertheless, it’s never helpful for a politician in a tight race to be back on his heels as voting day draws near. It’s tough to stay on offense and when you’re being asked to explain yourself. And while Weldon might have easily shrugged this off during a normal election year, he now has to contend with the broader, inhospitable, atmospherics.

As the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly put it late yesterday, “the suggestion of a possible scandal comes at a time when most of the voting public already has a dim view of the Republican-controlled Congress, and when public corruption has emerged as an issue in the national campaign for control of the House.” The CQ website, which has been tracking all House races this year, now believes – for the first time - that Weldon’s challenger, retired Navy vice admiral Joe Sestak, should be given the edge.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that if a well-ensconced incumbent like Weldon is ousted, it’s a sign that Republican control of the House is imperiled. But not everyone in the GOP camp is worried about losing control. Karl Rove, for instance, sat down with the friendly Washington Times yesterday and said, “I’m confident we’re going to keep the House.” And typically paranoid Democrats are no doubt wondering, “Does he know something that we don’t?”


There is no mention, in that Rove story, about Christian conservative voters, and whether they are sufficiently energized to help save the GOP congressional majority. Clues to their mood are abundant elsewhere. It’s clear that, in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, they remain furious with what they perceive as “homosexual infiltration” of the Republican party. And now they’re upset that Condoleezza Rice was recently photographed swearing in a State Department AIDS official who (a) is gay and (b) has a gay partner. And, worse yet, Rice was outwardly friendly to both.

Here’s the text of an email that I received the other day from the Family Research Council, a prominent religious right group. It’s self-explanatory:

“The U.S. State Department is in the business of diplomacy and avoiding faux pas, so the turns of phrase recently used by Secretary of State Condi Rice can be assumed to be intentional. Flanked by First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary Rice recently administered the oath of office for new Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. Mark S. Dybul. Dr. Dybul placed his hand on a Bible held by his homosexual partner Jason Claire. First the State Department's Deputy Chief of Protocol, Raymond Martinez, and then Secretary Rice herself referred to Mr. Claire's mother as Dr. Dybul's ‘mother in law.’ Both Martinez and Rice referred to Dr. Dybul's "family," which, under the circumstances (Dr. Dybul's parents were also present), contained enough truth to be generically proper."

The email continues: "A photograph of the swearing-in, on October 10, appears on the State Department's web site. In the world of protocol, verbal miscues are anathema. The question arises, what guidelines do the State Department and White House follow? Neither federal law (the Defense of Marriage Act) nor District of Columbia law recognizes a marriage between Dr. Dybul and his partner, and "mother in law" is therefore both linguistically (and possibly legally) improper and morally provocative. Why did Secretary Rice deploy the term in the presence of the First Lady? We've written to ask her, and we'll let you know.”

Don’t be fooled by that civil, polite language. The Christian conservatives are ticked off. As another religious right leader, Louis Sheldon, put it yesterday, the Dybul incident "was totally a damper to the base that we need to turn out” on election day.