Not only has Speaker Denny Hastert thoroughly mishandled the Mark Foley incident, he has been an ineffective leader, one who has failed to communicate broad policy and philosophical goals for the House GOP. Thanks to Hastert, there has been no guiding Republican message emanating from the House -- a huge missed opportunity, to say the least.
I'll deal first with the Washington scandal du jour. In 2002, Foley thanked that year's class of congressional pages with a bizarre, tearful speech that smacked of a guilty conscience and hypocritical emotions. According to the ABC Blotter, "Some of the very same pages in the chamber that day would months later receive Foley's sexually explicit messages." Clearly, Foley has acute problems.
But Republican staff warned congressional pages five years ago to watch out for Foley, now the former representative from Florida. Yet Hastert took no action.
Last year, sick e-mails from Foley were passed on to the speaker's staff. But again, no action was taken.
This past spring, more Foley complaints were raised with three GOP leaders -- including Hastert. Yet the speaker took no action.
The red flags were there, and in not acting decisively, Hastert failed his party. But he also short-changed a key Republican constituency -- the GOP's vital evangelical Christian base, which rightly trumpets the need for clear, pro-family moral and ethical standards in politics in order to stop the secular trend of moral relativism and the demoralizing rejection of faith.
The time has come for a change in the GOP caucus. But in the wake of the Foley incident, such a change may well occur as the GOP assembles a minority caucus next January.
And Republicans have Denny Hastert to thank for that -- and not only because he couldn't cut a messy scandal off at the pass. I would describe Hastert's leadership of the House in general as negligent.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was message-driven. So was former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. But since their departures, the House leadership has failed to deliver a clear and cohesive Republican message on low tax rates, budget restraint, earmark reform, private savings accounts for Social Security and healthcare, and firm oversight of the Iraq war and the Katrina cleanup.
Rather than a winning message of economic growth, a strong defense and optimism for the future, Hastert has given us silence. And where's his response to the House Democrats, who take every opportunity to speak up?
House Democrats are weak on defense, frail on national security and opposed to anti-terrorist measures such as warrantless wiretaps, data-mining for al-Qaida phone calls, and the interrogation and detention of the enemy. Meanwhile, House Democrats want to raise taxes, unleash a government takeover of healthcare and de-fund the war on Iraq.
Where's the counterpunch from the Republican speaker?
House stalwarts like David Drier, Mike Pence and John Shadegg have all tried to generate a strong GOP message. But Hastert has stepped in their way. It's as if no unified GOP message is possible while Hastert is in charge. Hastert wants things quiet.
Seldom does he make himself available to the press, including various cable and broadcast talk shows. He has operated as a behind-the-scenes player, someone who is worried more about process and compromise than advancing Republican philosophy.
And there are consequences to such reticence. Tax reform has gone by the wayside. So has spending reform. So has free trade. So has true immigration reform.
Yes, Hastert's House did extend the investor tax cuts. But where has Hastert been on abolishing or reforming the multiple taxation of capital? On the need to greatly expand all forms of personal savings accounts to cover retirement, healthcare and education? On any program that would reach out to the "investor class" or "ownership class"?
Hastert doesn't lead -- he drops the ball.
He never discusses key election issues, particularly economic issues. Where is he on the Bush bull market for stocks; or the not-too-hot, not-too-cold, but steadily expanding Goldilocks economy; or the resiliency of the American consumer; or plunging gasoline prices; or the remarkable profit-making health of U.S. businesses in the aftermath of President Bush's supply-side tax cuts?
Recent polls from the Los Angeles Times and Gallup show that the public approves of the economy, yet refuses to give Bush or the GOP any credit for it. This in good part is a failure of Hastert and his leadership group, who for some reason never talk about the obvious economic successes of their very own polices.
President Bush has been out on the campaign trail, heroically selling tax cuts, the economy and national security. Dennis Hastert has been nowhere to be found. He was quiet on Foley when he should have been loud, but his silence is no isolated incident.
The speaker should step aside.