When John Kerry took it upon himself to bring up Mary Cheney's homosexuality during the last of his 2004 debates with George W. Bush, he handed the Republicans a way to change the subject. Kerry had just bested Bush in three straight debates. Momentum seemed to be going his way. But for days after that final debate, TV went 24/7 with chatter over whether Kerry had gone too far in talking about Dick Cheney's daughter.
We've been thinking about all of that this week, and not just because -- as the right-wing never tires of reminding us -- Mark Foley appears to be gay, too. No, the Kerry-Mary episode comes to mind because it did to Kerry what the Foley-Hastert-Reynolds-Shimkus scandal is doing to the Republicans right now: It's changing the subject, knocking them -- and the media -- off their story line. It's hurting, maybe not all the way until Nov. 7, but right now, just as the Republicans finally seemed to be getting their groove back.
Remember the headlines from just a week or so ago? "Good Economic News Cheers Republicans." "Bush, Republicans Gain in Poll From September Push on Terrorism." "Bush and GOP Making Gains Among Voters." They're gone, replaced by ones like these: "Hastert Fights to Save His Job in Page Scandal." "Page Scandal Complicates Race for 'Mr. Clout.'" "Sex Scandal, Iraq Book Take Toll on Bush, GOP."
The last of these tops the results of the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Forty-one percent of Americans say what they've seen over the past few weeks leaves them with a "less favorable" view of Republicans in Congress than they had before. Thirty-five percent say it hasn't changed their views one way or another, which may just be another way of saying that things can't get any worse.
The problem for Republicans: When the malaise hits, it tends to spread. The WSJ/NBC poll has Bush's approval ratings back in the 30s, down to 39 percent from 42 percent last month. Support for the war in Iraq is dropping again. Last month, the poll found Americans evenly split on whether the war was helping or hurting the United States. Now 46 percent say it's hurting while only 32 percent say it's helping.
Is this a tipping point? Democratic pollster Peter Hart tells the Journal that there's a "moment of crystallization" for voters in every election. With a month to go before Election Day, this could be it, he says. Republican pollster Bill McInturff isn't going that far, but he acknowledges that "no incumbent wants to run an election on these sorts of issues."
Hence the pressure to make the Foley case go away as soon as humanly possible. House Republicans won't be able to disappear their former colleague entirely. He seems interested in keeping himself in the press, and an FBI investigation will help do that even if the river of IM exchanges with former pages finally begins to run dry.
The best Republicans can do now is distance themselves from it all, to make this about Mark Foley and not about them. That means getting ahead of the story or getting out of its way. As the New York Times reports this morning, Republicans around Washington are debating whether they need to make some "gesture to acknowledge the political uproar and demands for accountability, including changes to the House leadership" in order to put the scandal behind them.
Is Dennis Hastert getting the message? Tuesday morning, he had his spokesman put out the rather unequivocal word that he isn't going anywhere. In an interview later in the day, he said he'd leave "if I thought it would help the party." He said he didn't think it would -- that just "the opposite" would be true. Will his colleagues decide that he's wrong? Bad news about the Foley case won't keep dripping until November, but Republicans are going to have to decide now how much longer they can stand getting wet. It's not exactly waterboarding, but there's only so much anyone can take.