“What did he know and when did he know it?”
Those are the questions that seem to be on everyone’s lips when discussing the future of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.
Yet, in a very real way, those questions are irrelevant to whether he should resign his position as Speaker.
What really matters right now is, can Denny Hastert be the leader and spokesman for his Party in the coming election? For not only is Hastert Speaker of the House, a technically non-partisan position, but also the head of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives.
And it seems clear that the answer to that question is no. For the foreseeable future, Hastert will be involved in cleaning up the mess caused by the Mark Foley scandal, and his handling of the information he received about Foley over the past year or more. It is difficult to imagine that anything Hastert says or does in the coming weeks would not be tainted by that scandal, and impossible to imagine a situation in which he could effectively campaign for Republican House candidates.
Unless Hastert resigns, the Mark Foley scandal will be at the center of political discussion for the rest of the campaign season. It is tempting for Republicans to bemoan the injustice of it all. After all, Mark Foley was just one of the 231 Republicans in the House; and nobody knows for certain how much members of the Republican Leadership knew and when they knew it. There is a lot of dark talk about how the information about Foley was leaked as part of an “October Surprise” to derail Republicans in the key weeks before the election.
All of this is beside the point. Mark Foley’s behavior was inexcusable and indefensible. The leadership either knew or should have known enough to take vigorous action to protect pages and former pages from Foley, rather than just taking his word that he wouldn't do it again. Any attempts by Republicans to excuse or defend their leadership’s response will keep the public focused on the shortcomings of the Republican leadership, rather than on the issues that should decide the election. Anything Republicans do right now, short of a full mea culpa and a sacrifice of their leadership upon the alter of decency, will be seen as trying to defend the indefensible.
Denny Hastert must resign, not because this scandal is necessarily his fault, or even because we know of a specific failure on his part that if corrected could have avoided this scandal. Hastert should resign because it happened on his watch, and somebody has to take responsibility. And because there is no way that he can lead the Republican effort to retain control of Congress as long as this scandal is hanging over his head.
If Republicans are to have any chance at all of keeping their majority—and chances of that look increasingly slim —they need to go back on the offense and take control of the political conversation in last weeks of the campaign. They also need to send a clear message to the public that they understand that the House leadership had its priorities wrong in not taking strong action to deal with Foley's misconduct. Hastert cannot help them do that, and indeed it is probable that nobody in current House Leadership could.
Republicans need to quickly get past the question of what is fair and just, or whose fault this mess is, and focus entirely on the question of what they need to do to remain competitive in the upcoming elections. It doesn’t matter if this mess was an “October Surprise;” it doesn’t matter that many Democrats are being hypocrites when they decry Hastert’s response to Foley’s behavior; it doesn’t even matter if Hastert and other members of leadership really did all they reasonably could have given the information they had about Foley's misconduct.
Republicans are asking the voters to retain them in office because of the party's commitment to important principles, including the principle of personal responsibility. There is simply no way they can make the case unless they wipe the slate clean, elect new leadership, and embrace full responsibility for the failure to do the right thing about Foley. Anything short of this will doom the Republicans to minority status. Replacing the leadership may not be enough to salvage this election, but at least it will let the country know that the Republicans in the House understand that something went terribly wrong.