A Republican’s lewd messages to pages are giving Democrats a boost
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
It was the day
before Florida Republican Mark Foley lit the match that could torch his party’s hold on Congress. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, stood beneath the chandeliers and gilded mirror of her royal blue office on Capitol Hill on Sept. 28 and balanced in her chic espadrille pumps on the fine line between condemning the conservative-run Congress—and sounding like a liberal congresswoman from San Francisco.
Speaking to reporters before heading out to campaign for Democrats in a dozen different states, she added the words “God willing” each time she invoked the possibility of a Democratic victory in the congressional elections on Nov. 7—a win that would make the 66-year-old grandmother of five Speaker of the House, second in line to the presidency after Vice-President Dick Cheney, and the first-ever woman to hold the job. She compared the upcoming weeks of campaigning to Christ’s trials in the desert and the days Noah spent on the Ark (or, as she corrected herself: “Noah and his wife”). She critiqued Republican legislation on the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere without actually denouncing torture. And when asked to respond to GOP accusations
that Democrats would “coddle” terrorists, she growled: “I think every person in America would tear those people to shreds! With their hare hands!”
Democrats need to gain only 15 seats for Pelosi to seize control of the 435-seat House of Representatives (in the Senate, they need six). The gap appears modest, given that when Republicans swept the House in 1994, they gained fully 54 seats. But com puter-assisted partisan redistricting has since created so many safe seats for one party or the other that only some 30 to 40 races are considered to be “in play.”
The day after Pelosi’s press conference, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who analyzes congressional races, was declaring the campaigns dead even. “It’s right on the edge of the butter knife,” he said. All year, Democrats had been making gains, built on despair over the Iraq war and corruption scandals in Congress. But those were erased in September by presidential speeches on national security and a GOP tough-on-terrorism congressional legislative campaign.
Then came Foley, and the news that, beginning in the late 1990s, the congressman had sent electronic pleas to male teenage congressional pages, asking them to send him
photographs and do things that could break the kinds of laws he helped pass as co-chair of the House caucus on missing and exploited children. Could the pervert from Palm Beach deliver voters to the Democrats? Probably— what first looked like a one-creep, one-seat story was soon leading to calls for the heads of House Speaker Dennis Hasten, who had allegedly known about concerns over Foley’s behaviour but failed to act, and ofTom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Commission, who allegedly urged Foley to run for re-election despite knowing of concerns.
While Foley hid out in an alcohol rehab in Florida, GOP operatives tried to force Hasten out by leaking polls suggesting the party could lose as many as 50 seats if he stayed. Poll after poll is showing the GOP in trouble. An Ipsos poll showed that half of likely voters said the Foley scandal will be “extremely important” to their choice. A Gallup poll taken over the weekend showed Democrats with double the lead Republicans had a month before they seized control of Congress in 1994—and it’s the Democrats’ largest advantage among registered voters since 1978. While many races will still turn on local issues, most analysts assume that the Foley affair will lessen the turnout among the crucial Republican constituency of social and religious conservatives. (The presumption is that fiscal conservatives have already decided to stay home, weeping into their scotch about record budget deficits and pork spending.) Republicans are trying to rally their base, in part by using Pelosi in TV ads suggesting that if God-fearing folks stay home and mope, she’ll push the country right off the left coast.
But such a scenario is mostly scaremongering on the right. Pelosi may represent San Francisco, but she’s no dippy hippie. The daughter of a former mayor of gritty Baltimore, she
GOP POLLS HAVE BEEN LEAKING, SHOWING THAT AS MANY AS 50 HOUSE SEATS ARE IN DANGER BECAUSE OF THE FOLEY SCANDAL
is by most estimations a hard-headed pol. “Is she personally very liberal? Absolutely,” says Sabato. “But she hasn’t moved the caucus to the left. She has been totally focused on winning the election—and you can’t win it from the left no matter what the blogs say.” And while many Democratic voters are motivated by a desire for reckoning over the Iraq
war, Pelosi has been promising for months that Democrats will not launch impeachment hearings into allegations that Bush misled Americans into war, despite a suggestion last year from John Conyers of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the House judiciary committee, that the option be looked at. Instead, she is promising to make nice. “We would have bipartisan administration of the House. I think it is important for us to rid ourselves of this fierce partisanship,” she said.
On specifics, the Pelosi agenda is less clear. “I don’t think the public has heard anything that sounds terribly coherent,” says Will Marshall, the head of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank of moderate Democrats. “The Democratic party has not thought through their alternatives all the way to the end, so that would occasion some battles and expose some flanks.” One flank is Iraq: the Democrats are divided over what to do. Some want an immediate pullout, some a more gradual timetable, others have called for sending more troops. The House Democrats’ platform, the “New Direction for America,” talks about a “phased redeployment” of troops beginning this year, and somehow getting “Iraqis to take responsibility for their country.”
Pelosi has said that on her first day as Speaker, she would pass new ethics rules to “drain the swamp” of Republican corruption. Then comes enacting all the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, increasing the minimum wage and financial aid for students, negotiating lower drug prices for seniors on Medicare, and repealing some Bush tax cuts. But unless Democrats muster a majority in the Senate, she could be limited to passing symbolic bills and resolutions rather than legislation that could pass both chambers, be signed by Bush, and actually become law. “The more likely scenario is a narrow majority in the House, in which case legislatively I think you’re in a holding pattern—neither party will be able to do a lot,” says John Fortier, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Pelosi’s most potent tool may prove to be Democratic chairmanship of House committees, which have the power to hold investigative hearings that could expose information damaging to the administration in areas ranging from pre-Iraq-war intelligence to the New Orleans reconstruction. With the 2008 elections in view, her challenge will be to seize the opportunity to embarrass Republicans— without provoking a public backlash. “Certainly Congress has a right and a responsibility to exercise the checks and balance responsibilities, and we will certainly do that, but in a constructive way as we go forward,” she said. M
ON THE WEB: For more of Luiza Ch. Savage, visit her blog at www.macleans.ca/luizasavage
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