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Will Scandal Loom Large in ’08 Elections?

Last month, the FBI raided the offices of Rep. Rick Renzi’s family business as part of an ongoing Justice Department investigation into a land-swap deal that could benefit one of the Arizona Republican’s friends. Just days before that raid, the FBI searched the home of Rep. John Doolittle, apparently looking for records of a company run by the California Republican’s wife, who had done business with disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Doolittle immediately announced that he was temporarily stepping down from the House Appropriations Committee. Renzi said he would do the same from the House Intelligence Committee. Both men denied wrongdoing.

The raids did not surprise many in Washington; for months, everyone knew that the legislators were being investigated by the Justice Department. But they put the GOP’s continuing woes back in the spotlight, and while the party’s scandals are unlikely to decide the 2008 presidential elections, they may convince more than a few voters that it is time for change in the White House.

Scandal alone does not explain the GOP’s sizable 30-seat loss last year in the House of Representatives, or the party’s stunning six-seat loss in the Senate. Iraq was a larger issue in the minds of voters, and it contributed to the general perception that George W. Bush’s presidency has failed. But Republicans clearly lost at least three House seats because of scandal.

Pennsylvania Republican Don Sherwood lost re-election in a very Republican district after admitting to having a mistress but disputing her charge that he attacked her. John Sweeney lost his solidly Republican seat in New York after multiple controversies hit local newspapers, including reports of the congressman drinking at a college fraternity party and of alleged domestic violence between the congressman and his wife. And Ohio Republican Bob Ney’s seat went Democratic three weeks after the House Administration Committee chairman pleaded guilty to felony charges and just four days after he resigned.

Perhaps more importantly, those scandals — as well as those involving California Rep. Duke Cunningham, who took more than $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors; Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, who was indicted for violating Texas campaign law, and Florida Rep. Mark Foley, who sent inappropriate e-mails and instant messages to former House pages — played into the impression that Republicans were more concerned with protecting and enriching themselves than with pursuing policies to deal with the nation’s problems.

Exit polling after last year’s congressional elections showed 41% of respondents saying that “corruption and scandals” were “extremely important” in their vote, a higher percentage than those who said that the war in Iraq or the economy was “extremely important.” Of that 41%, three-fifths voted for Democratic House candidates, compared with less than two-fifths for Republicans.

And since last year’s election, the news has only gotten worse for Republicans. In March, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis Libby, was convicted of perjury and of obstruction of justice. The same month, the White House got itself into trouble when reports surfaced that the administration appeared to be firing U.S. attorneys who either went after Republican officeholders or were not as aggressive in going after Democratic officeholders as the White House and other Republican elected officials wanted.

As they did in 2006, there is no doubt Democrats will run in 2008 against an alleged “culture of corruption” in the GOP. And as was the case in 2006, it is likely to prove to be an effective issue for them, since its appeal crosses ideological lines and should have particular appeal to independent voters.

Democrats will use the issue even though they have an embarrassment or two of their own: Former North Carolina Rep. Frank Balance was sentenced to four years in prison for funneling tax dollars to his law firm and to his relatives, and Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson is still under investigation for possible bribery charges after FBI agents found $90,000 hidden in his freezer.

Democrats will use the issue because they know it will be the Republican Party — which controlled Congress from 1995 until this past January and has run the White House for the past seven years — that is most likely to take the blame for any general impression among voters that Washington has become a sewer of corruption and scandal.

Republicans will rightly argue that they already paid the price for scandal in the 2006 midterm election. And they just as surely will note that whatever the shortcomings of the current administration, George W. Bush will not be on the ballot again in 2008.

Those arguments, however, are unlikely to be compelling enough to convince voters that the Republican Party is blameless for the country’s problems.

A survey conducted in late March by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found 43% of adults responding that the Democratic Party “governs in a more honest and ethical way,” while just 25% picked the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, a majority of respondents picked the Democrats as being able to “bring about the kind of changes the country needs,” while only half as many, 26%, picked the GOP.

And yet, for all the Republican Party’s problems with scandal and ethics, the biggest issue in the 2008 presidential elections — as in the previous one — is likely to be Iraq, which continues to show up in national polling as the top issue of the day. As has been the case with most elections, next year’s race is likely to be a choice between continuity and change.

Republicans will have a new nominee for president next year, but that does not mean he will begin with an entirely clean slate. Instead, he will need to overcome impressions about his party that have festered for years, impressions based primarily on the situation in Iraq but also to some extent on Republicans’ performance in office. Not surprisingly, current polling shows Americans with a much more favorable impression of the Democratic Party than of the GOP.

Over the next 18 months, Democrats will surely spend time talking about scandal and corruption. You can easily imagine Democratic TV ads featuring lists of alleged ethical lapses by Republicans over the past four years, ending with a tagline about it being time for a change.

Focusing on Republican scandals may not be a silver bullet for Democrats, but it will reinforce any existing sentiment among voters that it is time for change — and that undoubtedly will be a major problem for whoever the GOP nominates for president in 2008.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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