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Charlie Rangel vows to stay and fight

New York Rep. Charlie Rangel's decision to take to the House floor today to defend himself against ethics charges further complicated Democrats' ability to drive their preferred economic message while simultaneously handing Republicans a cudgel which they immediately began to use to beat up on endangered incumbents.

In his 31-minute speech, Rangel offered an, at times, rambling defense of the allegations against him and hit back against -- among others -- President Barack Obama and many of his House Democratic colleagues.

Rangel also made quite clear he had no plans to resign his office and would pursue an expected September trial conducted by the House. "I can't walk away...because I am annoying and the action out there is that I am corrupt," he said at one point. "Take your best shot" at expulsion, he challenged at another.

(If you have not seen it, you must -- we repeat, must -- watch the address in its entirety. And, say a special prayer giving thanks for C-SPAN.)

Rangel's speech handed Republicans an unexpected political gift in a week in which the House was called back into session to pass $26 billion in spending for Medicaid and education funding in the states -- a piece of legislation that was touted as a political winner by Democrats as they head into a six-week August recess.

"The selfishness and arrogance of Charlie Rangel has no end with regard to the fact that he has clearly breached ethics rules in one way or another," said one senior House Democratic strategists granted anonymity to speak candidly about the New York Congressman's speech.

Said another senior Democratic aide: "Charlie Rangel worked his whole career to become the chairman of the Ways and Means committee to promote an agenda that prioritized his
district and districts like it. It's sad that now he doesn't have the gavel, he's willing to risk the majority that is making progress on that agenda."

Republicans quickly pounced.

The National Republican Congressional Committee funded a series of robocalls into nearly three dozen contested House districts urging those targeted Members to return campaign contributions made to them by Rangel. (Here's the robo-call made into New York Rep. Dan Maffei's district.)

"Charlie Rangel might not have been found guilty of ethical misconduct yet, but there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he helped build the Democratic majority by padding the campaign war chests of dozens of members of congress with millions of dollars in contributions," said NRCC communications director Ken Spain.

Rangel's comments -- and the Congressional trial that now seems inevitable -- have both a micro and a macro impact on the fall election.

First, the micro.

Six New York congressional districts currently held by Democrats are rated as either "lean Democratic" or "toss up" by political prognosticator Charlie Cook. A seventh -- the seat vacated by former Rep. Eric Massa (D) -- is rated as "lean Republican".

Rangel's New York roots make it tougher for any member of the New York delegation -- even those who hail from Upstate districts far from Rangel's Harlem-area seat -- to distance themselves from the senior Democrat.

And, because Rangel is more of a household name in New York, attempts by Republicans to directly link Empire State House members to him may find more purchase than similar tactics would nationwide.

On the macro level, the high profile nature of the charges against Rangel and his spirited defense create a potential hypocrisy problem for House Democrats in the eyes of voters.

When Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) took over as Speaker of the House following the 2006 election, she famously promised to "drain the swamp" -- a reference to the ethical problems that had consumed the Republican majority and played a major role in their ouster that fall.

And so, while it's a near-certainty that most voters have never heard of Charlie Rangel outside of New York state, he can be used symbolically by Republicans to make the case that Democrats made promises they have not kept in office.

There are few things that voters dislike more than politicians acting like politicians -- saying one thing and then doing another. That's particularly true in an election cycle like this one where voters are broadly skeptical of the status quo and openly disdainful of Washington broadly and Congress specifically.

Rangel's unwillingness to step aside puts House Democrats in a very tight spot. If Rangel wants a trial, a trial he will get. And, that trial will come less than two months before voters head to the ballot box this fall -- a disastrous bit of electoral timing for a party already swimming upstream against a difficult national environment.

By Chris Cillizza  |  August 10, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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