The Reach of a Scandal
Idaho Senator Larry Craig is already feeling the political consequences of his guilty plea to a charge of disorderly conduct in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. Calls for his resignation and an ethics investigation, questions about the Republican Party's ability to hold his seat in the usually very-red state and discussions of the candidates who may try to replace him have all bubbled to the surface since the story broke on Monday.
But how will the scandal play politically? Is it a definite negative for the GOP and a plus for Democrats? Or will it have some other outcome? A lot depends on how the two parties handle the scandal.
With controversies like Craig's, a perception of an indecisive or cynical response by a party can sour the public's outlook, as it did last fall when former Florida congressman Mark Foley was embroiled in a sex scandal, but perceived overreaction can also hurt, as Republicans found when they impeached Bill Clinton for perjury in a sexual harassment case.
Last fall at the height of campaign season, Foley's electronic trysts with a House page came to light, raising questions about the Republican Party's stewardship of Congress's ethical standards. Beyond the details of the scandal itself, it was further revealed that the party's leadership knew about Foley's misconduct months earlier and did not act.
This lack of action plus dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and the nation's economy contributed to the Republicans' loss of both chambers of Congress on Election Day. As the scandal unfurled, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 10 percent of registered voters said "ethics in government" would be the single most important issue in their vote for Congress and just 31 percent said they trusted Republicans to handle the issue.
But no scandal impacts only one side. In that same poll, 70 percent said there was no difference between the two parties on ethics and honesty. And while 64 percent said that the Republican leadership in Congress tried to cover up for Foley, two-thirds said Democrats would have done the same and 63 percent said the Democrats were using Foley's misconduct for political gain.
The Republican Party's image suffered more than that of Democrats, however. In October, Gallup (subscription required) measured a 35 percent favorability rating for Republicans, the lowest since December 1998, when the public's disfavor was tied to the party's handling of another sex scandal -- Bill Clinton's involvement with intern Monica Lewinsky.
At the time, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that six in 10 Americans disapproved of the House vote to impeach the president and about the same percentage felt the vote was based more on partisan politics than the facts of the case.
After Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) (who was set to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker of the house in the midst of the controversy over Lewinsky) resigned his office due to an extramarital affair, a whopping eight in 10 Americans said that too much attention was being paid to the dalliances of elected officials. Ironically for Livingston, 74 percent said the increased attention was the Republican Party's fault.
There are, of course, details unique to each scandal of this kind, like the parties involved and exact nature of the accusations. The national political atmosphere also has an effect. When the Lewinsky affair came to light Bill Clinton enjoyed relatively high approval ratings and the country was enjoying a time of relative peace and prosperity. The Craig scandal arrives during a time of war and political division in the country -- and during a period of low approval ratings for Craig's party.
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