Monday, October 09, 2006

The GOP's "Hey, how about that awesome Dow?" defense

As part of their ongoing attempts to defuse the Mark Foley scandal, the Republicans have now come up with another talking point, another strategy designed to change the subject from their own potential culpability. In essence, it can be called the “Hey, how about that awesome Dow?” defense.

As I mentioned here last Thursday, the Republicans, mindful that their dominance of Congress is imperiled with just four weeks remaining in the ’06 congressional elections, have been trying out all kinds of defenses. On the Sunday shows yesterday, for example, Florida congressman Adam Putnam, the number-five guy in the House GOP hierarchy, brought up the “Yeah, well, what about Bill Clinton?” defense; while under fire on ABC’s This Week, he charged that the other two people seated at the interview table – Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel and host George Stephanopolous, had once worked for Clinton and had “covered up” for him. (Stephanopolous quickly pointed out that he had left Clinton’s employ two years before the Lewinsky scandal.)

And Putnam tried another tack, which can be called the “When trapped, simply make stuff up” defense. While seeking to defend the embattled House GOP leadership, he said this about the events of Friday, Sept. 29: “Within hours of the explicit email coming to light, (the Speaker’s office) demanded Foley’s resignation.” But this attempt to paint Dennis Hastert as a man in charge, a talking point that was also floated late last week by GOP chairman Ken Mehlman, does not square with factual reality. When ABC News was preparing to break the story that day, it called Foley’s office in the morning with the details. An hour later, Foley called back and said he was quitting Congress. House Speaker Dennis Hastert played no role in the decision – and said so himself last Monday: “When (the instant messages) were released, Congressman Foley resigned. And I’m glad he did. If he had not, I would have demanded his expulsion from the House of Representatives.”

So that brings us to the Dow defense.

On paper, this would appear to be a potent way to change the subject, by arguing in essence that voters should be more focused on the money in their pocket than on the particulars of one sleazy episode. The macroeconomic indicators are healthy these days, and any incumbent party in a tight spot would try to take credit. Putnam reeled off some of the stats yesterday: plummeting gasoline prices, a low jobless rate, and “three record-breaking days for the Dow last week.” Illinois congressman Ray LaHood did the same thing over on CBS yesterday, and a trip of Republicans echoed this theme on the Sunday New York Times’ op-ed page; as former California congressman Tom Campbell contended, “The robust economy stems from actions the Republican president and Congress have taken…”

Yet, if all this is true, then why are the Republicans getting no credit from the voters for the sunny economic stats? In a Newsweek poll released yesterday, Democrats were favored over the Republicans as the party best trusted to handle the economy – by a margin of 53 to 31 percent. Other polls lately have reported similar margins. Privately, a number of Republican strategists are deeply frustrated by these findings, and their party’s apparent inability to reap political benefits. One of them asked me recently, “Can you explain it?”

It’s not so tough to explain. One could always make the argument that most voters are dismissing the sunny numbers as irrelevant to their everyday lives; after all, counter-stats show that the real wages of working Americans have stagnated during the Bush years, and that the gap between the richest and poorest Americans continues to widen. It was Henry Paulson, the Bush administration’s new Treasury secretary, who effectively undercut the Sunday show Republicans, when he said in a speech two months ago that “amid this country’s strong economic expansion, many Americans simply aren’t feeling the benefits. Their increases in wages are being eaten up by high energy prices and rising health care costs, among others.”

But the GOP’s current inability to get credit for the economy can probably be attributed to a more fundamental factor: the Bush administration’s credibility gap.

Iraq is the animating issue in the ’06 elections, and, as yesterday’s Newsweek poll pointed out, a majority of Americans now believe that the president (backed by the GOP Congress) deceived the nation into war. This climate of distrust permeates the national mood at the moment. Disenchanted voters, who feel they have been deceived, are hardly in the mood to accept as truth the GOP’s claims of effective economic stewardship – especially at a time of deep budget deficits, caused in part by a war that is costing the taxpayer $2 billion a week.

Meanwhile, the Foley scandal has managed to underscore the GOP’s credibility woes. Republican congressman Tom Davis - who has headed the House GOP’s campaign efforts in the past, and who is respected for his willingness to dump the talking points and talk straight – put his finger on the problem yesterday, during his appearance on CBS’ Face the Nation. He said simply that the Republicans can’t get any “oxygen” to talk about their preferred issues, because of “the very difficult atmospherics” of the moment.

And to truly gauge how difficult the “atmospherics” have become, consider the plight of Tom Reynolds, the Republican congressman who is helming the current House GOP campaign efforts.

An upstate New York incumbent who was widely assumed to be a cinch re-election winner, he suddenly trails his Democratic challenger by 15 points – because of his role in the Foley chronology. He says he informed Hastert about Foley last spring, but Hastert says he doesn’t remember that. And Reynolds reportedly asked Foley to run for re-election at a time when evidence about Foley’s behavior was already circulating (although he now says he can’t recall when it was that he asked Foley to run again).

Reynolds was supposed to appear on ABC yesterday, but he canceled. No surprise there. More surprising was the release of his new TV ad in his home district. Appearing on camera, he recounts his version of events, starting with last spring: “I reported what I had been told to the Speaker of the House….I trusted that others had investigated.”

Now there’s a political commercial that you normally don’t see: In a bid to save his own skin, an incumbent from the governing party is attacking the leader of his own party as untrustworthy.

With that kind of material out on the airwaves, is it any wonder why the Republicans are having problems changing the subject to the economy?


Will social and religious conservative voters stay home on election day and tip the balance to the Democrats? Some polls say yes; The New York Times today isn't so sure. Either way, and no matter who wins this autumn, tensions will persist within the fragile Republican conservative coalition, at least according to one print column that ran Sunday. That would be mine.