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Archive for Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Scandal shows danger of stifling dissent

October 10, 2006

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If there was an Olympic competition in closing ranks, surely the Republican Party would take the gold.

Prominent conservatives and House Republican leaders tumbled over one another early last week to complain about the way House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., handled the sex scandal that forced the abrupt resignation of Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla.

In a private poll of top Republicans, Hastert still might not be their first choice to serve as speaker next year if the party retains its House majority. But by week's end, the public rebellion against him had almost entirely dried up. With leading conservative voices such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page insisting that any leadership change would only embolden Democrats, the flood of criticism thinned to a trickle.

At the revolt's high tide, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., jabbed at Hastert. By week's end, both looked like Chinese officials summoned to a self-criticism session during the Cultural Revolution: Each issued submissive statements praising Hastert and abjectly pledging their support. Even Paul M. Weyrich, a shrewd and independent conservative strategist, reversed his call for Hastert's resignation after an impassioned phone call from the speaker.

The pirouettes might be especially pronounced, but these are familiar steps for the GOP in recent years. Marginalizing internal dissent and promoting party unity have been hallmarks of the Republican governing strategy under President Bush.

Using both carrots and sticks, the White House and GOP congressional leaders have successfully encouraged Republican legislators and activists to see themselves more as part of a team and less as autonomous voices representing distinct and divergent constituencies. With only a few exceptions (education, immigration), the GOP has tried to resolve every policy choice in a manner that maximizes agreement within their coalition and minimizes the opportunity for Democratic influence.

That approach has produced undeniable benefits for the GOP: a series of narrow, often virtually party-line, legislative victories and massive turnouts by the party's base that powered victories in the 2002 and 2004 elections. And, although there's a reasonable political case to be made for removing the speaker, circling the wagons around Hastert might make more sense as a short-term campaign strategy than forcing him out.

But the Foley scandal dramatizes the long-term dangers of governing with a mind-set that prizes party loyalty over principled independence and denies the value of legitimate checks and balances.

In this environment, for instance, it's not surprising that Republicans didn't notify Rep. Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, the sole Democrat on the House Page Board, when questions about Foley first emerged. Republicans probably didn't think it was remarkable to exclude Kildee because they exclude Democrats from virtually all serious House business.

And it was hardly surprising that GOP leaders and Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the House Page Board, didn't press Foley too hard or seriously investigate his contacts with pages. For six years, the White House and congressional Republicans have created a culture in which asking tough questions that might cause near-term political headaches for the party is viewed as conduct disloyal to the team.

That was the clear message in 2004 when Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, criticized his Senate counterpart, Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., for holding public hearings on the Abu Ghraib abuses. Hastert sent an equally strong signal the next year when he dismissed the GOP chairman of the House Ethics Committee after the panel admonished then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, for a series of ethics violations.

Unity can be a powerful asset for a party. But the unmistakable lesson from the GOP's current distress is that stifling questions and quashing independence doesn't bury problems. It plants them in soil where they inevitably grow more forbidding.

Does anyone doubt that the Bush administration would be better off today if the Republican-led Congress had conducted more genuine oversight in 2003 about the plans (or lack thereof) to rebuild and stabilize Iraq after overthrowing Saddam Hussein? Or that the House would not have experienced so many scandals - from DeLay to Foley and beyond - if the GOP leadership, with the collusion of leading Democrats, had not crippled the ethics process?

"If everyone thinks there is no sheriff in town," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the independent watchdog group Democracy 21, "you wind up with the Wild West."

Novelist Ellen Ullman wrote that in relationships, you tend to go out the way you came in. That may be true in politics too.

In 1994, Democrats lost control of the House partly because many voters correctly concluded they had grown arrogant and insular during their long years in the majority. Republicans benefited from that experience much more than they appear to have learned from it.

- Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for the Times.

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