Looking back at the fall campaign, it's yet another cycle in which the Republican political brain trust sidestepped the issue of America's growing concern for indecency oozing out of almost every perfumed pore of Hollywood. This time, it may have been the fatal mistake.
The number one issue of importance coming out of the '04 elections was "moral values," thus presenting the GOP with the opportunity to pounce on the indecency issue during the '06 campaign. I visited with one Republican incumbent running for re-election and suggested that this would be an ideal theme for his campaign. He responded that in all his years in the Senate, he'd never received as much constituency mail as what landed in his mailbox, his email and his voicemail following the Janet Jackson Super Bowl striptease. But he also left me with the clear impression, validated later by his campaign performance, that he'd do nothing on this front.
Republican strategists pull muscles just thinking about Dan Quayle scorning the "Murphy Brown" single-mom plot in 1992.
Here and there were exceptions. In TV ads in Pennsylvania, family-values stalwart Sen. Rick Santorum told voters, "I'm even working with Hillary Clinton to limit inappropriate material in children's video games, because it makes more sense to wrestle with America's problems than with each other." I'm sure a few other candidates had throwaway lines in their stump speeches. But there was nothing of substance, nothing serious coming out of this crowd.
And it was a lost opportunity in another way. The biggest rap against the GOP from its conservative base has been its do-nothing approach to governance, yet on the issue of decency the Republicans could point to a smashing legislative accomplishment. Still, no one could seem to locate the fact that on June 15, President Bush signed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which increased tenfold the potential of FCC fines to those who continue to violate the public trust by pouring garbage on the public airwaves. The House version of the bill passed in June by a 379-35 margin, and the Senate passed it by unanimous consent -- no roll call vote. It was a smashing success, exactly in line with the sentiments of the vast majority of Americans.
So why the campaign silence? Maybe it's because, as with so many other "values" issues, the Republican leadership was never enthusiastic. It's important to note that it took the Republicans in the Senate two and a half years after the Janet Jackson breast-baring to pass their version of the bill -- and they did so only after massive constituency pressure.
And there's the rub. The problem is that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., face two constituencies with wildly differing levels of enthusiasm.