Spin and Damage Control

Posted: October 3, 2006 in 2006 Elections, Beltway Drama

The Hotline has two separate posts with excellent analysis of how Republicans and Democrats are going to handle their political strategy and message surrounding the Foley scandal. They make extremely accurate points on both sides and I think they’re right on.

I would add that on the Republican side (and the Democrats IF any Democratic members of Congress or aides are implicated in subsequent investigations of the House page program) they need to take some lessons of the past into account.

Look at how past political scandals (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, Whitewater, House banking, etc.) were handled or mishandled by elected officials and their staffs and political allies. Political and PR consultants will tell you that in any scandal, the best way to defuse it is to get ahead of the story and disclose everything immediately. This gets all the information out at once and would ideally avoid any subsequent revelations or leaks which would give the public and political impression of a cover-up.

As far as accountability goes, the two people I see that are in real political danger over this are Dennis Hastert and Tom Reynolds. Reynolds moves up the food chain in this because Howard Kurtz revealed today that his current chief of staff [who was aware of the original email to the page and was former chief of staff to Mark Foley] tried to talk ABC News out of revealing the damning AOL IM chat transcripts by offering an exclusive interview with Foley. Brian Ross, to his credit, refused to take the deal.

At a minimum, I expect that aide to be out of a job before Election Day, because he just brought the whiff of scandal onto his boss, who is in the middle of a tough re-election campaign which will now draw the attention of the national political press corps. No amount of loyalty or concern for a former boss, mentor, or friend should override political concerns or appearances for your current boss, especially if he’s the House Republican most directly responsible for trying to maintain a GOP majority this fall.

Hastert, as the Speaker of the House and the third-highest ranking politician in the country, is ultimately responsible for anything that goes on in his chamber of Congress. I don’t know about his chances for re-election, but I would say his leadership position in the caucus is in serious jeopardy. A Washington Times editorial called for him to step down as speaker.

Unlike the other major political scandals of the past few years (Abramoff, Cunningham, DeLay, Jefferson, Oil for Food, Enron, the CIA leak, NSA warrantless wiretapping, etc.) this is a clear cut issue that ordinary Americans, especially parents, will have no trouble understanding or following. The only thing I might even be able to compare it to is the sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church a couple of years ago, although there is no evidence yet to suggest Foley’s behavior was a symptom of a much larger institutional problem within the page program and the House of Representatives. The timing of the story could not have been worse for the GOP. It’s a month away from Election Day, which gives plenty of time for the story to grow legs and any other skeletons in the closet to be discovered by the media.

Looking ahead, regardless of who wins on Election Day, expect a more extensive in-depth investigation of the House page program. I don’t know when the House Ethics Committee will have their investigation or preliminary findings done, but I would expect a more aggressive committee like Government Reform to look into it. Given Henry Waxman and Tom Davis’ track record of cooperation and willingness to take up issues in their committee, this would seem to be fodder for them, regardless of which of the two is chairman in January.

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