It’s the culture, stupid

The rapidly-multiplying scandals ripping through Washington like a category five hurricane has Republicans reassessing their political futures while Democrats rub their hands with glee amid dreams of massive gains in the 2006 midterm elections.

A Texas judge’s refusal to toss money laundering charges against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay all but sealed the Texas Republican’s hope of recapturing his lost leadership post and DeLay, along with at leave five other Republicans (and one Democrat) face additional charges from the widening Justice Department investigation into the many illegal activities of GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

And it’s not the only problem faced by Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Fred Frist faces serious questions about insider stock trading and California Republican Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham resigned his seat after copping a plea for accepting bribes.

“The conduct is certainly brazen,” says Kenneth Gross, former chief of enforcement at the Federal Election Commission.

That’s one way of putting it. Politics is, and always has been, a dirty business where shady deals dominate the way votes are bought and sold. Yet the brazenness of the Cunninghams, DeLays and Frists shock even Washington oldtimers.

“You develop friendships,” says Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, “and those friends see you after hours, on the weekends, and they have nice play toys — boats, access to golfing, country clubs, credit cards — and you’re becoming friends with the guy and you don’t think that much of it, and before you know it you get caught up in it.”

Even those who come to Washington with promises to be different and clean things up too often get caught up in the culture of power, greed and a belief that the rules don’t apply.

“That corruption is rampant in Washington, D.C., surprises no one,” says conservative commentator Chuck Baldwin. “What is surprising, at least to me, is how so many people, especially people calling themselves Christians or conservatives, seem so willing to tolerate it!”

Political partisans, of course, see all this as the fault of the other party.

“Tom Delay and his congressional allies are taking political corruption to new lows. Tom Delay is now under indictment on criminal charges,” says House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.  Pelosi forgets Democrats caught in their own share of scandals, including North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan in the Jack Abramoff scandal or jail terms handed down to cronies of former Democratic President Bill Clinton or jailed Democratic congressman James Traficant.

Scandal doesn’t belong to any particular political party and neither can claim a copyright on honesty. It’s the culture itself not a belief in any partisan political philosophy that breeds corruption. But since Republicans control both Congress and the White House, they face the most fallout from current scandals and that’s what has GOP strategists worried.

Conservative consultant Craig Shirley says 2006 could turn into another 1974 when voters ousted Republicans in a post-Watergate house cleaning. Conservatives, he says, could sit out the election to express their displeasure with President George W. Bush.

“Conservatives are perilously close to driving a car through the front window of the Republican Party,” he says.

Others echo the doom and gloom. GOP pollster Linda Divall says that even if Bush makes peace with conservatives, moderates may bolt.

“Moderates don’t feel they’re being listened to,” DiVall says. “You can’t just play to your base.”

In the end, blame for the Republican Party’s woes almost always falls on Bush. Even loyalists say the President, who promised the “most ethical administration” in history, has delivered, instead, a “business as usual” White House where politics too often overrides good public policy.

“There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus,” says John J. DiIulio Jr.: who served as the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “What you’ve got is everything — and I mean everything — being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”