A Scandal-Scarred G.O.P. Asks, ‘What Next?’
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON, Aug. 28 — Scott Reed, a Republican strategist, was at a dinner in Philadelphia on Monday night when his cellphone and Internet pager began beeping like crazy. Only later did he learn why. His party was buzzing with news of a sex scandal involving a Republican United States senator — again.
Just when Republicans thought things could not get any worse, Senator Larry E. Craig of Idaho confirmed that he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct after an undercover police officer accused him of soliciting sex in June in a Minneapolis airport restroom. On Tuesday, Mr. Craig, 62, held a news conference to defend himself, calling the guilty plea “a mistake” and declaring, “I am not gay” — even as the Senate Republican leadership asked for an Ethics Committee review.
It was a bizarre spectacle, and only the latest in a string of accusations of sexual foibles and financial misdeeds that have landed Republicans in the political equivalent of purgatory, the realm of late-night comic television.
Forget Mark Foley of Florida, who quit the House last year after exchanging sexually explicit e-mail messages with under-age male pages, or Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist whose dealings with the old Republican Congress landed him in prison. They are old news, replaced by a fresh crop of scandal-plagued Republicans, men like Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, whose phone number turned up on the list of the so-called D.C. Madam, or Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and Representative Rick Renzi of Arizona, both caught up in F.B.I. corruption investigations.
It is enough to make a self-respecting Republican want to tear his hair out in frustration, especially as the party is trying to defend an unpopular war, contain the power of the new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill and generate some enthusiasm among voters heading toward the presidential election in 2008.
“The real question for Republicans in Washington is how low can you go, because we are approaching a level of ridiculousness,” said Mr. Reed, sounding exasperated in an interview on Tuesday morning. “You can’t make this stuff up. And the impact this is having on the grass-roots around the country is devastating. Republicans think the governing class in Washington are a bunch of buffoons who have total disregard for the principles of the party, the law of the land and the future of the country.”
Then again, Washington does not have a monopoly on the latest trend among Republicans. Just ask Thomas Ravenel, the state treasurer of South Carolina, who had to step down as state chairman of Rudolph W. Giuliani’s presidential campaign after he was indicted on cocaine charges in June.
Or Bob Allen, a state representative in Florida who was jettisoned from the John McCain campaign last month after he was arrested on charges of soliciting sex in a public restroom.
Mr. Craig, for his part, has severed ties with the Mitt Romney campaign, despite his public declaration on Tuesday that “I did nothing wrong.”
In an interview Tuesday on “Kudlow and Company” on CNBC, Mr. Romney could not distance himself fast enough. “Once again, we’ve found people in Washington have not lived up to the level of respect and dignity that we would expect for somebody that gets elected to a position of high influence,” Mr. Romney said. “Very disappointing. He’s no longer associated with my campaign, as you can imagine.”
Republicans, of course, do not have an exclusive hold on scandal. As Democrats accused Republicans of engaging in a “culture of corruption” during the 2006 midterm elections, Republicans eagerly put the spotlight on Representative William J. Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat who stashed $90,000 in his freezer — ill-gotten gains, the authorities said.
Still, there is a sort of “here we go again” sense among Republicans these days, especially since news of the Craig arrest broke on Monday afternoon. It is tough enough being in the minority, weighed down by the burden of the war in Iraq. Now Republicans have an even more pressing task: keeping their party from being portrayed not just as hypocritical and out of touch with the values of people they represent, but also as a laughingstock — amid headlines like “Senator’s Bathroom Bust,” which ran all Tuesday afternoon on CNN. The story also ran at the top of all the network evening newscasts on Tuesday.
“I’m hoping it’s a big mistake,” said one of Mr. Craig’s Republican colleagues, Senator Lamar Alexander, traveling Tuesday in Tennessee, his home state. “But it certainly does nothing to increase confidence in the United States Senate.”
With President Bush hobbled by his own political difficulties, the party can hardly look to him to lead them out of the morass. “If we had a coach,” said John Feehery, who was press secretary to Representative J. Dennis Hastert when Mr. Hastert was the House speaker, “the coach would take us in the locker room and scream at us.”
Some Republicans are indeed screaming, particularly the party’s social conservative wing, which places a high priority on ethics and family values. Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group in Washington, said the elections of November 2006, in which Republicans lost control of the House and the Senate, proved that voters want politicians in Washington to clean up their act.
“Exit polls show that was the No. 1 factor in depressing Republican enthusiasm,” Mr. Perkins said in an interview Tuesday. “There is an expectation that leaders who espouse family values will live by those values. And while the values voters don’t demand perfection, I do believe they want leaders with integrity.”
The perception that Mr. Craig is not living up to his own values is causing problems for him, and after his appearance on Tuesday, with his wife standing by his side, some Republicans confessed they did not know what to think.
“He sounded almost as convincing as, ‘I did not have sex with that woman,’ ” said Gary Bauer, a Christian conservative and onetime Republican presidential candidate, reprising President Bill Clinton’s remark initially denying involvement with Monica S. Lewinsky.
Mr. Craig is up for re-election next year and has promised to announce next month whether he is running again. Some, like Mr. Bauer, say he is unlikely to survive the current scandal; others, noting that Senator Vitter seems to have weathered his storm, say Mr. Craig might be able to tough it out. And at the rate things are going, says Mr. Reed, the Republican strategist, it might be only a matter of time before a new scandal pushes Mr. Craig’s woes off the front page.
“I’m a little afraid to say anything, because you don’t know what happens tomorrow,” Mr. Reed said. “That Vitter thing, that’s like ancient history now.”
Carl Hulse in Nashville contributed reporting.