The Magazine

A Tale of Two Ads

The real choice this November.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"It shocks the conscience. Congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children. For over a year, they knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect their own power. For 17 years, Patty Wetterling has fought for tougher penalties against those who harm children. That's why she's demanding a criminal investigation and the immediate expulsion of any congressman involved in this crime and coverup."

--TV ad on behalf of Patty Wetterling,

Democratic candidate in Minnesota's 6th Congressional District

"A call is placed from New York to a known terrorist in Pakistan. A terrorist plot may be unfolding. Should the government intercept that call or wait until the paperwork is filed? Nancy Johnson says: 'Act immediately. Lives may be at stake.' Liberal Chris Murphy says: 'No. Apply for a court warrant even if valuable time is lost.' Chris Murphy -- wrong on security, wrong for America."

--TV ad on behalf of Nancy Johnson,
Republican candidate
for reelection in Connecticut's 5th Congressional District


There you have it. These TV ads in two competitive House races tell the story. Repelled by former Republican congressman Mark Foley's sexual overtures to congressional pages and ex-pages, and by the House GOP leadership's alleged failure to move aggressively against him? Vote Democratic. Worried about the Demo crats' tendency to coddle jihadists? Vote Republican.

This is a choice that should work out fine for Republicans. Which is why Democrats and the media may look back on the frenzy about Foley as a tactical mistake. In a time of disturbing foreign news--apparent lack of progress in Iraq, North Korea's threat of a nuclear test, Pakistan's cutting a deal with al Qaeda, Iran's nuclear program chugging ahead--the assault on the Republicans focused on a disgraced and departed congressman and the unquestionably decent speaker of the House, Denny Hastert.

Foley is a creep. The House leadership might have stumbled in dealing with him. But even the Washington Post commented that Wetterling's ad "seriously overstates what is known about the actions of the House Republican leadership." Will voters really be convinced that Denny Hastert "knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect [his] own power?" From what we know, Hastert didn't find out about Foley's lurid behavior until a week ago, and then Foley was quickly gone. And how exactly did ignoring Foley's behavior help protect GOP power? His district is a safe Republican seat (except now, when Republicans are stuck with Foley's name on the ballot).

The attempt to make Foley a key issue in this fall's election is flopping. It's not credible to tar a political party with the misdeeds of one person. Did Republicans, for example, even try to link Gary Condit to other Democratic candidates in 2002? Was anyone really interested in Condit's party affiliation? Of course not.

And voters aren't in Foley's. National polls taken last week were basically unchanged from pre-Foley polls--bad for the GOP, but not irredeemable. And in the two competitive House races in Florida districts near Foley's, where there was of course saturation coverage of the story, the Republican candidates happened to gain ground last week.

There's no roll call vote in which the parties split on the behavior of Mark Foley. But there have been recent votes in which the parties divided on terror interrogations and (in the House) eavesdropping. On interrogations: Virtually all Republicans voted for tough interrogations of terrorists, and more than three-quarters of Democrats voted against. On supporting the administration's program of warrantless surveillance: Republicans in the House voted 214-13 for, Democrats 177-18 against. The Nancy Johnson advertisement may oversimplify things, but it captures a basic difference between the parties. That's why it has been effective. Johnson has opened a sizable lead on her opponent since the ad started running.

Issues usually trump scandals. Americans like reading about scandals. They like watching Desperate Housewives. But voting is different from voyeurism. The Republican landslide of 1994 was helped along by earlier congressional scandals--but it was basically ideological, following a campaign focused on Clinton's health care plan, his tax hike, gays in the military, gun control, and the like.