Robert Novak

The embarrassment of a House speaker rejected by candidates who most need help would have been avoided if Hastert had been pushed out last week. He was not, mainly because the man who has been speaker longer than any previous Republican is popular with his colleagues, who wanted to be fair to him. Furthermore, in conversations over the past week, they determined the political fallout from his resignation would be worse than his retention.

Rank-and-file Republicans do not blame Hastert for the failure of the House party leadership and its staff to heed excessive attention paid to male pages by closeted homosexual Foley. "Foley should have been tossed out years ago," said a Republican congressman who is a close ally of Hastert. "It's sickening."

The broader question asked by thoughtful Republican House members is whether the sloppy treatment of Foley's conduct reflected the same leadership problems in failing to make tax cuts permanent or even to address the coming crisis in Social Security.

Nor has Hastert supported spending reform. While he is not one of the Appropriations Committee "Cardinals" who pile up wasteful earmarks to the dismay of conservative voters, he and his staff are earmarkers. Four months ago, it was revealed that Hastert earned nearly $2 million in a 2005 land deal that might have been made possible by a $207 million highway earmark by the speaker. Hastert's colleagues looked away.

The decision to stick it out with Hastert postpones what House Republicans will do about leadership in the wake of probable defeat Nov. 7. Will they look for leaders unafraid of tax and spending reform and who will be more watchful of aberrant behavior by their colleagues?

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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