Perhaps the most relieved Republican in the country this week is Alberto Gonzales. On the day the much-maligned attorney general announced his resignation, spurring renewed examination of his controversial tenure, the news was quickly overtaken by that staple of Washington news coverage: a congressional sex scandal.
But for a Republican Party already facing an uphill battle in the 2008 elections – with an unpopular president, unpopular war, and several other legislators already in trouble – the latest bad news presents yet another blow to a GOP struggling to defend its image as the defender of family values. On Monday, news broke that Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho was arrested in June in a Minneapolis airport restroom for alleged lewd behavior and pleaded guilty earlier this month to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct.
The three-term senator says his guilty plea was a mistake and that he is not gay. But his party is not giving him the benefit of the doubt. In short order, the Senate Republican leadership requested a Senate ethics investigation into the case and stripped Senator Craig of his committee assignments.
At least two senators have called on Craig to resign. The harshest reaction of all came from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) whose presidential campaign Craig had served as a Senate liaison. Before Craig could come forward on Tuesday with his first public statement on the incident, Mr. Romney was raising analogies to the sexual improprieties of President Clinton (D) and former Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida.
"What you're seeing in some of the reaction is the lessons learned from last time with Foley and [the party leadership's] response to that," says Republican pollster David Winston.
The Foley scandal, which broke on the eve of the 2006 elections, centered on the congressman's lewd e-mails to male congressional pages and how the House GOP leadership seemed to look the other way when presented with evidence of a problem.
The scandal cost the party Representative Foley's otherwise reliably Republican seat and fueled Democrats' campaign cry of a "culture of corruption" in their successful takeover of both houses of Congress. Craig's problems, in contrast, were unknown to his colleagues until the story broke in Monday's Roll Call newspaper.
The Craig story follows last month's admission by Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana that his name was in a D.C. madam's "little black book," and his apology for "a very serious sin in my past." Senator Vitter, like Craig, is married with children and supports a socially conservative agenda. But Vitter is not up for reelection next year and stands a chance of surviving politically. Craig is up for reelection, and if he does not resign or retire, the GOP would likely lose his seat, analysts say. A SurveyUSA automated poll of Idaho adults taken Tuesday found a 34 percent job approval rating for Craig. Of the 89 percent familiar with the news on Craig, 55 percent think he should resign.
News of Craig's troubles hit the GOP like a kick in the gut. But at least there's time for the party to recover before the next election, political experts say.
"It's a long way till November '08," says Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center. "But at a time when the GOP's facing a lot of disadvantages already – enthusiasm, money, political values, party ID – it sure doesn't help."
A Pew report looking at voter attitudes over the past 20 years finds that opposition to the social safety net and support for traditional social values have steadily declined since 1994. Perhaps most alarming for Republicans is voters' shift away from identifying with the GOP. Pew found that 50 percent of voters are either Democrats or lean Democratic, versus 35 percent who are Republicans.
Republicans are quick to point out that Democrats have their own ethics issues in the form of Rep. William Jefferson (D) of Louisiana (under indictment for corruption) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D) of West Virginia (whose finances have faced scrutiny). Further, they say, while Republicans typically resign when they get in trouble, Democrats get reelected, as both Representative Jefferson and Representative Mollohan were last fall.
Have the Republicans set themselves up for harsh judgment and charges of hypocrisy by portraying themselves as the party of "family values"? Gary Bauer, a social conservative activist and one-time presidential candidate, thinks not.
"If my choice is between being governed by hypocrites and being governed by people who will be very consistent in what they put through – same-sex marriage, condoms, and birth control pills in the schools, etc., etc. – that would be a horrible choice, but I'd still go with politicians who are willing to vote for the correct things," he says, after saying he thinks Craig should resign.
"I don't think that's our choice, though. I think that the majority of office-holders in Congress are decent men and women who don't have secret lives and that the big thing that distinguishes them is not what they do or don't do in bathrooms, but whether or not they're willing to defend Judeo-Christian values."