Corruption will help challengers

By now, most of you have probably heard about the secretive “black ops” division of the Democratic Party that has been working on “Operation Pachyderm Patsies” ever since George Bush was reelected. Well, my covert sources inside that well-hidden office report that they were ecstatic last week over the latest revelations of GOP missteps, those made by Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.). It was quite a sight, I’m told, with the staffers all doing high fives and chest bumps.

By now, most of you have probably heard about the secretive “black ops” division of the Democratic Party that has been working on “Operation Pachyderm Patsies” ever since George Bush was reelected. Well, my covert sources inside that well-hidden office report that they were ecstatic last week over the latest revelations of GOP missteps, those made by Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.). It was quite a sight, I’m told, with the staffers all doing high fives and chest bumps.

Emboldened by their latest successes, I’m advised, they now boldly plan to go after the Republicans’ base among religious Americans. My sources report that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is on the precipice of proposing legislation that every federal office must display a plaque with a portion of Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death.” This, of course, will require companion legislation defining sin and expanding the list of offenses that qualify for the federal death penalty, but these are just details. The major point, in their minds, is that Republicans are in a pickle and some Democrats made the barrel.

There are many Democrats who believe this fiction. Some Republicans think it’s true, too. They honestly feel that the misdeeds of Cunningham and a few other Republicans will benefit the minority party enough at the next election to allow them to recapture control of Congress. The Right Reverend Speaker Pelosi is about to grab the gavel.

Last April, when this strange brew was starting to boil in Washington, I expressed in this space some doubt about the ability of the Democrats to use Republican “corruption” for partisan political advantage. I said then, and I’ll say it again, that voters simply won’t buy the argument that one side is corrupt and the other side is blameless. My column enflamed the Democratic Leadership Council enough to respond with a sarcastic essay on its website titled “Ethics: Who Cares?” The unnamed author excoriated me for my supposed “dismissal of any kind of enforceable standards of official behavior.” He or she distorted my position and entirely missed my main point that neither party can unilaterally benefit from corruption. There is a pox on both our houses whenever these situations arise.

But before you conclude that I’m saying the current round of corruption charges will have no electoral effects, let me be clear that I do expect there to be some consequences of criminal inquiries into so many members of Congress and lobbyists that mingle with them. I just don’t think the result will necessarily benefit Democrats.

Electoral responses to past scandal-ridden eras suggest that two groups will reap rewards from the present imbroglio: challengers and women. I expect more upsets of entrenched incumbents in both the primaries and the general elections. And voters will be more inclined than usual to vote for female candidates.

The impact of the present atmosphere of “corruption” will start to manifest itself in responses to the “right direction or wrong track” questions asked by pollsters. While economic views typically drive answers to those queries, in past periods of corruption I have witnessed a metamorphosis from moral concerns about leaders’ integrity to notions of a state or the nation being off on the wrong track. When wrong-track perceptions reach a critical mass, voters start tapping challengers to replace incumbents.

Voters also seem to turn to women in these situations. Consider Arizona. Starting with the 1988 indictment of former Gov. Evan Mecham on six felony counts, the Grand Canyon State went on a binge of official misconduct including the 1991 AZSCAM investigation that led to indictments of eight lawmakers, followed by Arizona developer Charles Keating’s savings-and-loan scandal, and concluded with Gov. Fife Symington’s resignation in 1997 after being convicted on bank-fraud charges. The result, in my view, was Jane Hull, the first female governor ever elected in Arizona. There will be more Jane Hulls elected in 2006.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.