The Magazine

Clearing the Decks

The new GOP formula: purge and elect.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By FRED BARNES
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Republicans are so intent on pushing scandal-plagued members of Congress out of office and far from the media spotlight that the entire party--from the White House to congressional leaders to the Republican National Committee to various campaign committees--was instantly united last week in the effort to force Senator Larry Craig of Idaho to resign.

At another time, Republicans might have cut Craig some slack, allowing him to finish his term and not seek reelection. But after suffering crushing losses in last year's midterm election--spurred in part by highly publicized GOP corruption in Congress--Republicans are not in a mood to tolerate another nasty scandal. The common expression among leaders is that they must "clean house."

They were already doing so when the story broke last week of Craig's arrest and subsequent guilty plea for disorderly conduct in an airport men's room notorious as a spot for anonymous gay sex. House Republicans had quietly coaxed Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona into announcing his retirement next year. And with at least one more forced retirement expected, the corruption issue was being taken care of, belatedly but decisively.

But the Craig case suddenly overshadowed the house-cleaning drive. His arrest had "global implications," a Bush administration official says, because everyone has heard of it and knows the sordid details. Within hours of the disclosure of his arrest, Republicans decided Craig must go. Rarely have Republican leaders acted so swiftly as they did in sending the matter to the Senate Ethics Committee and stripping Craig of his seniority and ranking position on committees.

That was accompanied by calls for his resignation by John McCain and Norm Coleman and the promise that more of their Senate colleagues would follow suit in drumbeat fashion. In an unprecedented move, the national committee was prepared to urge Craig's immediate ouster. The message was clear.

The White House got involved, too. Presidential aides checked with leaders of the Bush reelection campaign in Idaho in 2004 and with Republican officials. They found no support for Craig, only a strong feeling that he should resign his seat immediately. For Craig, the string had run out, in Idaho as well as Washington. Republicans are confident they can hold the Idaho seat in 2008.

What made the Craig case all the worse was its echo of the Mark Foley scandal that sideswiped Republicans a month before the 2006 election. After the Florida congressman's lewd emails with teenage Capitol pages were revealed, Republican House candidates across the country saw their poll numbers drop as much as 10 points. That all but assured Republicans would lose control of the House.

Republicans are desperate not to have another corruption-driven defeat in 2008. So when House Republican leader John Boehner, whip Roy Blunt, and others in the hierarchy met in a private retreat outside Washington last December, the corruption issue headed their agenda. They adopted a zero tolerance policy. They want no House candidates with corruption problems on the ballot. In 2006, four House members resigned (two later went to jail).

Boehner came up with a vague phrase for the sort of scandal they had in mind. It's one with "a clear indication of serious transgressions." In Boehner's mind, an FBI raid on your home or your wife's office is such an indication.

Arizona's Renzi is under investigation by the U.S. attorney for land-swap legislation that might, if passed, have aided a political ally. After the office of his wife's insurance business was raided by the FBI, he gave up his post on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. That wasn't enough. Under pressure from Republican leaders, he announced his retirement in 2008.

An FBI raid on the Virginia home of Rep. John Doolittle of California has put him on the pariah list. He and his wife have ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, among other problems. Former supporters and financial backers have begun announcing (with the tacit approval of Republican leaders) their desire for him to retire.

If all else fails, the ultimate tool to force a retirement or resignation is to inform the House member or senator that the national party will provide no campaign funds and perhaps even will finance a primary opponent. This tactic was used against Craig, along with the threat that Senate Republican leaders would, publicly and noisily, demand he resign.

In the House, Republicans have an informal watch list of members who've been reported to be under investigation but haven't been raided. These include Gary Miller of California and Don Young of Alaska, both in trouble over earmarks that aided backers or business associates.