I am indebted to my friend Bill Kristol for the shrewd observation that, in politics, a good idea starts out as a movement, turns into a business, and ends up as a racket. That isn't always true, but it is true a discouraging amount of the time, and it comes uncomfortably close to describing what has happened to the Republican Party in Congress in the past 12 years. Unless the GOP cleans up its act, fast and dramatically, it is in danger of suffering a historic defeat at the hands of the voters in the congressional elections this November.
Start with the observation that the American people have always had a double standard where political corruption is concerned.
The Democrats are pretty much always expected to be a little crooked. This conviction traces back to the Democratic city machines of the 19th and early 20th centuries -- New York's Tammany Hall was just the smelliest of an odoriferous bunch.
The Republicans, on the other hand, tend to be visualized as more prosperous, and hence presumably above the temptations of graft. The distinction may be unfair, but it has a long history. Then note that the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, and have had majorities in both houses ever since.
The freshmen who entered the House and the Senate in 1994 were, for the most part, genuinely idealistic, and seriously intended to serve their country well. But as the years rolled by all too many of them became comfortable with Washington and its ways (after all, they had 40 years of uninterrupted Democratic hegemony to model themselves on), and bad habits began to emerge. The lobbyists, to no one's surprise, transferred their affections from the Democrats to the new chairmen of the all-powerful congressional committees, and these, of course, were Republicans.
That is not to say that corruption, today, is universal -- far from it. In accusing the Republicans of "a culture of corruption," the Democrats are exaggerating wildly, as is their right. But there are quite enough whiffs of misbehavior in Republican circles to have attracted the notice of the voters. There was, for starters, GOP Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who has pleaded guilty to accepting more than 2 million bucks' worth of out-and-out bribes from lobbyists, and is on his way to jail.
Then came the revelations about the truly majestic criminality of Jack Abramoff, who has confessed to fleecing millions from the Indian tribes who hired him to lobby for their casinos, and scattering overseas trips, lavish dinners and similar expensive favors among his Congressional cronies -- not always, but usually, Republicans. (His sidekick, Michael Scanlon, has also pleaded guilty to such behavior.) The indictment of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., for perjury in the quite different matter of leaking the identity of a CIA agent, hasn't helped either, though neither Congress nor corruption was involved there.
It all adds up to a royal mess, and you can be sure the voters have noticed it. In a two-party system like ours, there is only one thing they can do to clean things up -- "throw the rascals out."
And Republican strategists had better not console themselves with the thought that the House of Representatives has been so gerrymandered by state legislators of both parties that only about 15 seats out of the whole 435 are actually "in play." When the American people, in their collective majesty, decide to change horses, little details like that tend to get trampled in the rush.
Is there anything the Republicans can do, at this late date, to save their necks? Give them credit for trying. They have already elected an attractive new House majority leader, John Boehner of Ohio, to replace Tom "the Hammer" DeLay (who himself has been indicted for campaign finance shenanigans by a vengeful Democratic prosecutor in Texas). And they are talking about reforming various bad habits, such as "earmarks," that Congressmen of both parties have fallen into. But they need to make some really dramatic changes, if they expect to impress the voters. And an even more robust economy, and some really good news from Iraq, wouldn't hurt either. The peril to the GOP in Congress is serious, and time is short.