The "culture of corruption" was real. That phrase was a much-contested talking point during the past two years, with Democrats touting it as an accurate description of the degraded ethical state of the congressional GOP and Republicans dismissing it as a smear.
Democrats were much closer to the truth. Voters took a good whiff of the odor emanating from Washington and some of their Republican representatives, and recoiled. One-third of Republican losses in the House came in congressional districts where the party had been tainted, to varying degrees, by scandal.
Those seats were in Arizona's 5th, California's 11th, Florida's 16th, New York's 20th, North Carolina's 11th, Pennsylvania's 7th and 10th, Ohio's 18th and Texas' 22nd congressional districts. Drawing from these races, the GOP's message to its ranks should be (taking them in order): If you want to take questionable Native American-tribe money, get entangled with a shady lobbyist, do favors for a client of a shady lobbyist, hit on teenage pages, have domestic-disturbance calls at your house, take bribes, funnel contracts to your lobbyist daughter, allegedly choke your mistress or run a congressional office infested with self-enriching charlatans -- please, go find some other party.
Human nature being what it is, this edict never could be truly enforced. Both parties will always have their share of malefactors. Democrats have two high-profile examples of their own, but such is the tawdry political cultures of their states that they both won re-election (Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana). Republicans, however, naturally were held to a higher standard as the party in power, and they didn't come close to meeting it.
The culture of corruption was really a culture of looking the other way, delaying action and hoping no one would notice. The first step on the slide toward oblivion was the decision of the House Republican conference right after the 2004 elections to reverse a rule that said members of its leadership had to step aside if indicted. This move was meant to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay from a bogus indictment in Texas, but it played as a special favor for a powerful player and was unsustainable. Republicans changed the rule back. But the culture-of-corruption theme had been set, and Republicans would play into it right up to Election Day.
As the scandal around Jack Abramoff developed, Republicans should have forced those members most directly implicated -- Reps. Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, along with just-defeated Sen. Conrad Burns -- to step aside expeditiously. They didn't, partly for understandable reasons -- delivering bad news to friends and colleagues is always hard. That's why reformers must be zealous. It takes zeal to break through the natural barriers to staying clean. Unfortunately, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was the opposite of zealous, refusing to force his members to purge themselves and adopt a wide-ranging, meaningful reform agenda.
Republicans just hoped they could hang on, without voters dwelling on the fact that all they seemed to care about was their own self-perpetuation. If there was ever any chance that strategy would work, it was eliminated by Florida Rep. Mark Foley's disgrace. The scandal again presented an image of a Republican Party resolutely unenergetic in policing itself and consumed with trying to shift the blame once misconduct came to light.
Exit polls show that more voters cited corruption as their top concern than even the Iraq War. Pundits are dismissing this number, but Republicans do so at their own peril. When given the chance to pass a verdict on a party disproportionately composed of fat and happy self-serving politicians, the public did a very American thing -- it gave them an unmistakable rebuke. Republicans now will have time in the minority to reacquire their reforming zeal. As for cleaning up their own ranks, it is no longer necessary. All elected Republicans in any way associated with scandal are now gone, courtesy of the American voter.