Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The thing that wouldn't leave

Christmas has come early this year for the Democrats...because America's favorite toe-tapper, Senator Larry Craig (R-Restroom), is now signaling that he may well un-resign (despite having said on Saturday that he intends to resign), and that he now plans to fight in Minnesota to get himself declared un-guilty (despite the fact that he has already pled guilty).

This is probably Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell's worst nightmare, made worse because it's happening during waking hours. The last thing he wants, at this point, is to burdened any further by a "family values" colleague who is now known, nationwide, for his practice of sliding his fingers along the underside of a neighbor's toilet stall.

Thirty years ago on Saturday Night Live, John Belushi played a character called "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave," an unwelcome houseguest who refused to hit the road despite his host's persistent entreaties. Craig apparently wants to do the sequel. McConnell, who is not particularly happy about this turn of events, said at a press conference this afternoon: "My view remains what I said last Saturday. I thought he made the correct decision -- the difficult but correct decision to resign. That would still be my view today."

Every day that Craig keeps himself in the news is another bad news day for his fellow Republican senators - who are already facing a tough electoral landscape in 2008, and the very real prospect of losing more seats. And every day that this guy stays in the news is a bad day for the '08 Republican presidential candidates - most of whom are slated to debate tonight on Fox News. (Perhaps the fair-and-balanced questioners will ask the obvious question: "Do you candidates believe that Larry Craig should keep his Senate seat as he explores his legal options, or should he resign for the good of the party?")

Craig seems to be juiced by the argument that he was unfairly railroaded by the cops and prosecutors after his arrest at the Minneapolis airport, an argument offered twice in recent days by Senator Arlen Specter, a former prosecutor and the ranking GOP member on the Judiciary Committee. Specter told the Associated Press yesterday that "the more people take a look at the situation, there may well be second thoughts," and contended that if Craig hadn't pled guilty to disorderly conduct and had instead insisted on going to trial, "I believe he would have been exonerated." (Conservative commentator Dean Barnett notes ruefully, "If you’re the kind of Republican who suspects Arlen Specter is at the root of all things evil, this is a story for you.")

I've heard this argument as well. An ex-colleague of mine emailed to say, "Am I alone in believing that had Craig not pled guilty, the case against him was probably unwinnable? Since when do you get convicted for foot and hand signals? Craig said nothing and offered no proposition before the cop busted him. And on the (police) tape, he denies everything. I think civil libertarians should be incensed. Even gay-bashing (expletives) have rights."

All told, Craig's press secretary insisted on some wiggle room yesterday: "We're still preparing as if Senator Craig will resign Sept. 30, but the outcome of the legal case in Minnesota and the (Senate) ethics investigation will have an impact on whether we're able to stay in the fight - and stay in the Senate."

But his task in Minneapolis - to cancel his guilty plea - won't be so easy. He could claim, for starters, that he was unfairly entrapped by the undercover cop, but many legal experts doubt whether that defense will work. The general rule of thumb is that the defense succeeds only when the defendant can show that he was strongly invited to behave in a manner that he would not otherwise have exhibited.

In this case, however, the arrest report details a lot of uninvited behavior; as legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin said the other day on CNN, "Craig did a heck of a lot more than just pick up a piece of paper in the stall. He rubbed his hand along the side of the stall, and he lingered outside and looked through the crack and rubbed his fingers together. I mean, there were a whole series of signals. And the jury might very well have believed the officer rather than Craig."

And as for the guilty plea itself, that might be tough to expunge. The Minnesota courts reportedly do permit the withdrawal of guilty pleas, but the hitch is that the guilty must show there was "manifest injustice." That might be a tough standard to meet in Craig's case, especially since he was warned ahead of time by the prosecutor that his guilty plea would appear on his criminal record, yet still agreed to the plea after more than two weeks of deliberation.

The senator from Idaho is surely entitled to pursue all remaining legal options, but, for our purposes, it's the political realm that matters most. One of his many lawyers, Stanley Brand, told NBC today that Craig should not be punished in the Senate for his "private conduct," but Dean Barnett, the conservative commentator, doesn't buy the idea that a guilty plea stemming from conduct in an airport john meets the definition of "private." As Barnett puts it, "The kind of behavior he engaged in wasn’t just illegal. It was also narcissistic and immoral. Once again, children use that restroom..."

Many GOP sympathizers recognize that the party will remain under an ethical cloud as long as Craig sticks around. In the words of conservative blogger John Hawkins, "The moment he pled guilty, his political career was over and even if he manages to 'lawyer' his way out of the guilty charges, the public isn't going to buy it at this point...Whether Craig likes it or not, it's game over for him and he might as well go quietly with as much dignity as can be mustered under these sorry circumstances."

Which is surely the opposite of what Democrats are whispering to themselves this morning. Something along the lines of, "Larry, you can stay as along as you like."


Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, we have "The Thing That Wouldn't Stay." That would be longtime fugitive Norman Hsu, the former Hillary Clinton fundraiser (or, in the campaign's parlance, "Hillraiser"), who today skipped a court date in California, after first promising that he would show up to answer for his '91 guilty plea to a grand-theft felony rap. The guy has disappeared. And now that he's on the lam again, a fresh warrant has been issued for his arrest.

History apparently repeats itself. As I recall, scores of shady Democratic donors fled the country in the wake of the 1996 Bill Clinton fund-raising scandal, rather than face questioning.

Actually, we don't know whether the "apparel executive" has fled the country. But if he's hiding out in Idaho, he might want to avoid the public restrooms.