REPUBLICANS have fumbled the ethics issue. The spreading HUD scandal has crippled Republican plans to exploit unethical behavior by Democrats in Congress in the 1990 elections, according to political analysts across the country.
Six months ago, GOP leaders had high hopes that Democratic corruption on Capitol Hill would mean big gains for the Republicans in the House of Representatives.
The GOP once talked openly of targeting then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D) of Texas and House Democratic whip Tony Coelho of California in a throw-the-bums-out-campaign that would put Democrats on the run. Republicans were going to use the ethics issue like a club, driving Democrats off Capitol Hill.
Suddenly, the issue went poof.
Speaker Wright and Mr. Coelho resigned - removing themselves as political targets. Simultaneously, a multimillion-dollar scandal erupted at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The onus swung back to the executive branch, run by the GOP since 1981, and on Republican political appointees, including former HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce Jr. Now it was Republicans who were answering charges. (Congress shares responsiblity for HUD and other scandals, page 7.)
Even Wright's chief accuser, Republican House whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, today finds himself facing questions about his behavior.
California pollster Mervin Field says that, with both parties tarred, the ethics issue is neutralized; the HUD scandal wiped out any advantage the Republicans held because of Wright and Coelho.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, agrees. ``The issue is a wash now,'' he says. Larry Hugick, an analyst with the Gallup Poll, says: ``Neither party can do much with the ethics issue now.''
Even Republican officials admit the HUD scandal is causing problems. John Buckley of the National Republican Congressional Committee says, ``If public and private polling data are correct, the people think `a plague on all their houses' in Washington.'' Mr. Buckley says he hopes that, on balance, the GOP will still be helped. If public opinion becomes solidly against the ``in'' crowd, the Democrats will be hurt more, since they hold an overwhelming majority in the House.
Yet other analysts say that ethics was never an easy issue for the Republicans to exploit.
``I never really believed Republicans could make that [issue] sell and stick against [Democratic] candidates who were untouched by the scandals themselves,'' says Dr. Sabato. ``Now it will be well-nigh impossible.''
Mr. Field says the ethics issue is difficult for the GOP because Republicans have a built-in image problem of being too cozy with big money and big business.
``The historical belief was that Republicans had money and Democrats didn't. If you were doing word association, it was `Republican' equals `rich'. And there are people who think that those who accumulate money do it in less than honest ways. So Democrats start out with an edge, with the public thinking they are more honest, for they are more poor.''
The ethics issue looked tempting for Republicans only a few months ago. They recalled that ethics was a powerful factor in previous national elections. The Watergate scandal drove Republicans out of the White House in 1976. The Iran-contra affair severely damaged Ronald Reagan's popularity in his second term. Ethics problems tripped up several congressmen in the 1988 elections.
But some analysts say the 1990 opportunity was never as good as some Republicans claimed.
For example, Mr. Hugick of Gallup notes that even when the Wright scandal was page 1 news every day, large numbers of Americans ignored it. They were far more interested in other events, like China's student demonstrations, flag-burning, the Alaska oil spill, and abortion.
``A lot of people are turned off by Washington,'' Hugick says, partly because of the scandals. When Wright fell from favor, the public was inclined to say: `Oh, it's just another Washington politican caught up in unethical behavior,''' Hugick explains.
One result: Polls show that Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidency are held in increasingly low regard by voters.
While all this is bad news for Washington, it is good news for at least one group of politicians: the challengers.
Experts note that virtually every congressman who ran for reelection in 1988 won. The notable exceptions were congressmen who had ethical problems.
The same could be true in 1990. While the vast majority of congressmen will almost certainly be reelected, woe unto any congressmen with a hint of scandal about them, observers say. They could be on their way out.