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Abramoff effect House GOP in peril ...

A specter is haunting Republicans — the specter of corruption. 

The spreading tentacles of the Jack Abramoff scandal enveloping the GOP are only one facet of this Hydra-headed monster that will likely cost Republicans votes this November and beyond.

A specter is haunting Republicans — the specter of corruption. 

The spreading tentacles of the Jack Abramoff scandal enveloping the GOP are only one facet of this Hydra-headed monster that will likely cost Republicans votes this November and beyond.

In addition to Abramoff, to whom we will return, there are the indictments of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, and the continuing investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), combined with the doubts about the president’s own honesty in dealing with weapons of mass destruction and the domestic espionage scandal.

I can only hope someone will tell me I’m too young, but it is hard to remember a time when so many leaders of one party in both the White House and Congress were caught up in scandal.

In an effort to escape blame, Republicans keep citing the money some Democrats have received from Abramoff clients. Two distinctions are purposely lost here. First, the charge is one of bribery, of exchanging public policy for personal favors. Receiving campaign contributions is not a crime. No Democrat has been accused of corruption; indeed no Democrat has been in a position to deliver public policy.

Second, Abramoff and his friends are part of a long and despicable tradition of taking advantage of Native Americans. There is all the difference in the world between ripping off tribal people, as Abramoff did, and Democrats who received contributions because they have worked to improve the quality of life for Native Americans.

Political commentators join the fray, emphasizing the fact that polls today show voters consider both parties to be ethically challenged. Frankly, that analysis misses the point almost completely.

Even before the Abramoff plea, back in November 2005, Gallup found Democrats with an 11-point margin over Republicans on which party would do better at dealing with corruption in government. To put it in perspective, that was exactly the same margin Republicans had on dealing with terrorism, their traditional strength. So while voters may wrongly see Democrats and Republicans as suffering equally from ethics problems, they are much more likely to believe Democrats will clean up corruption. Even if both parties are part of the problem, Democrats are the solution, in the public mind.

Moreover, history tells us that when scandal breaks the party in power suffers. Voters know that it is power that corrupts, and they wreak vengeance on those in power. Going into the 1994 elections, Gallup found exactly equal numbers saying Democrats and Republicans in Congress were “mostly honest and ethical.” Less than three weeks after that poll was taken, Democrats lost 55 House seats and nine Senate seats, partly as a result of the much more minor ethics charges Republicans hurled at Democrats that year.

The wrongheaded view that the Republican culture of corruption will damage both parties equally also fails to take into account the way the Abramoff investigation will develop. Four members were referred to in the plea agreement. All four were Republicans. Abramoff has reportedly said he can personally implicate 60 more members. Since his personal dealings were all with Republicans, we can assume those too will be GOP members. It is Republicans who put Abramoff in charge of the scandalous K Street Project designed to reap profits and policy changes on behalf of GOP lobbyists.

In short, the people likely to be charged with criminal activity, the members whose mug shots will be featured on TV, the guys in the orange jump suits, will all be Republicans. That fact will likely change public perception about the relative integrity of the two parties, or at least reinforce the current view that Democrats rather than Republicans can be counted on to clean up corruption in Washington.

Ethics will haunt Republicans in this election year and beyond.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

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