By Richard S. Dunham, Lee Walczak, and Eamon Javers For Democrats who have been bemoaning their lack of unity on a whole host of issues, from George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominees to participation in a GOP-led inquiry into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, it's Christmas in September on Capitol Hill.
In the space of a few days, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has become enmeshed in a Securities & Exchange Commission probe into sales of his huge HCA Inc. (HCA) stock holdings from a blind trust. And on Sept. 28, another bombshell exploded as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas was indicted by a Lone Star State grand jury for allegedly conspiring to violate a Texas ban on corporate campaign contributions.
REACHING THE WHITE HOUSE. With the Republicans hip-deep in ethics quicksand, Democrats don't need cohesion anymore -- they're just watching as their rivals sink 13 months before the midterm elections. "Thank God it's not September, 2006," mutters GOP consultant Scott W. Reed, who worries that the ethics issue "has the potential for longer-term damage."
Actually, the damage could get worse. A federal grand jury probing the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame is close to winding up its work, stoking fears among some White House aides that political guru Karl Rove might be targeted.
And federal investigators are widening their inquiry into GOP superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, a DeLay pal who is under fire for questionable lobbying and investment schemes. On Sept. 19, L'Affaire Abramoff reached into the White House. The FBI arrested former White House procurement chief David H. Safavian, a former Abramoff business associate and golfing partner.
"EXCEDRIN MOMENT". Ultimately, both Frist and DeLay could well be exonerated. While the timing of Frist's stock sale has aroused Democrats' ire, it seems unlikely to be judged as insider trading under the law. And in Texas, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's decision to indict DeLay on tough-to-prove conspiracy charges likewise could mean that the Democrat will have trouble getting a conviction. DeLay quickly counterattacked in a blitz of public appearances, denouncing the indictment as nothing more than a "political witch hunt."
But for stunned Republicans on Capitol Hill, their problems now transcend ethics woes. They face a perfect storm of political bad news: A President sinking in the polls, rising opposition to the Iraq war, sky-high gasoline and natural-gas prices, new pessimism about the economy, and concern over the Administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.
"If you're a Republican going home to your district, this is an 'Excedrin moment,'" says John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "You want to talk about tax cuts, but the first questions are about Katrina, Iraq, and ethics."
FRAYING DISCIPLINE. By itself, the Democrats' contention that ruling Republicans are abusing their power "isn't going to trigger a political tide" against the GOP, Pitney reckons. "But in combination with Iraq and the economy, it may make a difference." Adds one well-placed GOP lobbyist: "Republicans are beginning to look and feel like the Democrats of the late 1980's -- out of touch, aloof, and arrogant."
While it's far too early to predict an anti-GOP tide in 2006, the party's ethics woes will have an immediate impact on an already problematic Republican agenda. Party discipline will take an immediate hit -- especially in the House, where DeLay is sidelined for an indefinite period and the GOP has lost its most effective arm-twister. The Texan's leadership will be missed on key legislative measures such as a second, pro-production energy bill, a DeLay pet project. Frist, for his part, has been increasingly distracted as he huddles with his legal defense team.
Even a temporary leadership meltdown will make it that much harder for Republicans to muster their trademark discipline.ne portent: Hardline conservatives in the House, kept in check by DeLay, have already flexed their muscles by nixing House Speaker Dennis Hastert's first choice for a temporary DeLay replacement -- David Dreier of California. The Right elbowed Dreier aside in favor of conservative stalwart Roy Blunt of Missouri. With hardliners already in revolt over exploding spending on President Bush's watch, the prospect is for more intra-GOP turmoil in the days ahead.
"THEY ALL DO IT"? Can Democrats capitalize on this distress? They will try, in part by pushing a "clean government" package of institutional reforms. Among the ideas: Curbs on cronyism in national-security-related jobs, tighter tabs on lobbyists, and new restrictions on former lawmakers and Administration officials who cash in on "revolving-door" lobbying jobs. Another ploy: Stepping up criticism of the Administration's issuance of some no-bid cleanup contracts in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf, deals that went to such oft-harpooned outfits as Halliburton (HAL).
Ethics wars could intensify if Republicans uncork a new nuclear option -- counter-charges hurled against leading Dems. Among the candidates under consideration for GOP attacks: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), Representative William Jefferson of Louisiana, and Senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey, his party's current gubernatorial nominee.What's more, GOP prosecutors, both federal and local, will have even more motivation to try and nail a Dem scalp as Republicans try to play to voters' ingrained belief that when it comes to Congressional pols, "they all do it."
That would reinforce Republicans' contention that the Dems who ruled the Congressional roost for a generation won't be any cleaner than the current crew. "At the end of the day," says GOP consultant Reed, "Democrats will be faced with no clear agenda, no new ideas, and no leaders. So while the Republicans are in for some rough waters, the Democrats are forced to stand on the shore and wave."
WINTER FROM HELL. No doubt, Democrats have a way to go to convince voters that they can fit comfortably into the new mold of America's Clean Government Party. In a July 19-25 poll, Democracy Corps, a liberal survey outfit, asked voters to assess whether they would be more likely to vote for a Democrat who claimed that Dems "will be bold reformers and will limit the influence of lobbyists and corporate interests in Washington." In response, 45% said they would be more likely -- but 51% were not.
To convince voters that they will clean up log-rolling and corruption, "Democrats need to go further in differentiating themselves, with a clear message on how things would be different," says Karl Agne, who directs focus groups for Democracy Corps.
Over the long haul, political analysts on both sides of the ethics wars will be closely watching the polls to see if a mini-trend in favor of the Dems in voters' generic party preference -- now running between 9 and 12 percentage points -- strengthens into a wave that could threaten Republicans broadly in 2006. Yes, the election is 13 months away, and yes, many GOP seats (like Democratic seats) are artfully gerrymandered to minimize a successful challenge. But voters still have to endure the Winter from Hell on the gasoline and home-heating fronts, and the economy is clearly slowing under the burden of higher energy prices.
If the Dems can't make some inroads under these conditions, they should probably hang up their spurs and ride off into the sunset, like the Whigs.In the meantime, embattled Republicans have their work cut out for them to maintain their monopoly on power at both ends of Pennsylvania Ave.
Lorraine Woellert also contributed to this story
Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook editor, Walczak is BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief, and Javers is a correspondent in the Washington bureau