By Ben Goddard - 04/06/06 12:00 AM EDT
Many Republicans were breathing a sigh of relief at Rep. Tom DeLay’s announcement that he would not seek reelection this year.
There was a sense among some that Americans would now forget about the Abramoff scandal. One former DeLay aide is reported to have said, “I think there was a great deal of relief” at DeLay’s decision.
That reaction may be a little premature. It is unlikely that the last shoe has dropped in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Federal prosecutors have a firm grip on a bone that can make careers, and it is unlikely they are going to back off.
A government official quoted in The Washington Post said the Justice Department places a “dramatic premium” on obtaining information that might implicate others. This official said that, for DeLay, “the federal case is going to get worse before it gets better.”
And it is unlikely that Abramoff and former DeLay aides Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy will be the end of the line. Surely they’ve offered up information on others to get a more lenient deal with prosecutors.
The chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), correctly notes that the corruption issue is not going away with the indictments or the resignation of DeLay.
“When a person steps down, it inflates the severity of the situation,” he says. And if they think “the country will stop debate on these issues, they’ve got another think coming.”
Sounds as though we’ll be hearing more about cronyism and corruption from the Democrats in the weeks and months ahead. But Democrats are going to have to treat this issue gingerly.
Voters clearly have gotten the message that there is a mess in Congress. While Republicans are taking most of the heat and may well suffer more at the ballot box, Democrats have lost a lot of respect as well. Most polls show that voters have about the same opinion of Democrat members as they do of Republicans.
True, in generic and even head-to-head tests Democrats look very strong in April 2006. But six months is a long time, and a lot can happen. Democrats should be hoping that as shoes keep dropping they belong to GOP members and that the focus of the investigation stays on Republicans and, ideally, broadens to include DeLay himself.
A number of recent polls suggest voters believe congressional Republicans have turned Washington over to the corporate lobbyists. As long as stories of lobbying abuse focus on Republicans, that opinion is likely to prevail.
But while Democrats can argue that Congress should answer to “the people” and not to corporate cash cows for Republican campaigns, that argument loses some power in the face of 527 committees funded by wealthy liberals. Voters believe everyone in Washington is hustling for campaign cash and those who give it are likely to get what they want from government.
Despite the trouble that Cunningham-Abramoff-DeLay are likely to continue causing the Republican Party, Democrats make a mistake if they relay only on the cronyism/corruption argument to carry this election. That allows individual Republican candidates to run on their “personal integrity” and against the culture in Washington. As we all know, most congressional elections are local. Democrats cannot afford to let 2006 be played with those ground rules.
A recent series of polls by Stan Greenberg, validated by others ranging from Pew to NPR, suggests nationalization of the election is the key to victory. The problem is not Tom DeLay; the problem is President Bush. He advocates national tax policies that favor the wealthy and corporate America. He supports incentives that move jobs overseas. Bush governs for the few; Democrats want an America that works for everyone. Democrats will raise the minimum wage, repeal loopholes encouraging jobs to move overseas, bring real security to our ports by inspecting 100 percent of cargo containers and reduce American dependence on foreign oil with aggressive programs to develop alternative energy.
If you vote for Republicans you vote to continue moving the country in Bush’s direction. If you vote for Democrats you get a new direction. That simple message encompasses all that voters don’t like about current policies, from lobbying sleaze to port security. (Doesn’t say much about immigration, but we’ll address that in another column.)
If Democrats really want to hear more shoes dropping, as in 15 pairs in the House and six in the Senate, those are the messages they need to take to America in November.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.