Media

Foley, Gays and the Religious Right: Is This the Nail in the GOP Coffin?

It's become clear that the Republican leadership protected a predator. Will it cost them the conservative Christian votes they so desperately need?
If there's any question as to why former Rep. Mark Foley was able to continue his harassment of teenage congressional pages, look no further than the spin of Bush spokesman Tony Snow: "Look, I hate to tell you but it's not always pretty up there on Capitol Hill, and there have been other scandals, as you know, that have been more than simply, uh, uh, uh, naughty emails."

Those "naughty emails" (and instant messages) included "I would drive a few miles for a hot stud like you," requests for photos, unambiguous advances ("Do I make you a little horny?"), and exchanges like this one (Maf54 is Foley):
Maf54: What ya wearing?

Teen: T-shirt and shorts.

Maf54: Love to slip them off of you.
As egregious as his behavior appears to be, the writer of the above messages isn't the whole story -- he's merely a catalyst. Foley, who resigned on Friday, has checked into alcohol rehab and stated that he was "deeply sorry." He faces an FBI investigation to perhaps, ironically, be convicted under some of the laws he helped to pass.

But the bigger, more institutional question remains: What did the GOP leadership know, and when did they know it? Evidence suggests that Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Jim Boehner both knew that there were issues -- though neither, of course, cops to awareness of anything approaching the text above. In fact, evidence suggests that Foley's behavior was well known in GOP circles for years, with former page Matthew Loraditch telling ABC News that pages were warned to "watch out for Foley" as early as 2001.

After initially stating simply that he knew nothing until it was reported in the press, House Speaker Dennis Hastert eventually owned up to the fact that his office was notified of "over-friendly" communications between Foley and a page many months earlier. His office was also notified that the page's family "wanted the contact to stop."

This was roughly a year ago, in the fall of 2005, yet the speaker did nothing. In fact, though he admits he was personally told about this by Rep. Rodney Alexander, he also claims to not "explicitly recall" the conversation. Alexander is the congressman of the page on the other end of Foley's advances.

According to an AP report, "Rep. Thomas Reynolds, who heads the House Republican election effort, said Saturday he told Hastert months ago about concerns that a fellow Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mark Foley, had sent inappropriate messages to a teenage boy."
Then there's Majority Leader Jim Boehner's conversation with Hastert, during which, Boehner says, Hastert claimed that "we're taking care of it." That was this spring. Since then, Hastert has allowed Foley several months of "over-friendly" "contact" with a teenager. In a CNN interview, conservative Bay Buchanan noted that the earliest emails "had predator stamped all over it." And that: "No one in the country can suggest otherwise."

Hastert has consistently followed the Katrina approach to leadership: ignore the warning signs, keep cronies in power and undercut investigations of wrongdoing. Hastert himself is the beneficiary of cronyism -- he was shepherded into the position of leadership by Tom DeLay after Newt Gingrich's resignation and the resignation of the man who was poised to replace Gingrich. A third-stringer, as it were.

According to the Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman, Hastert's office was well known to take a "laissez-faire" approach to ethics issues. Weisman quotes a Republican source, who adds: "They don't respond when things are bending, but they get very excited when they break."

Sure, this could easily describe Hastert's actions with regard to the Foley case. But the story actually appeared earlier this year when Hastert came under fire for his softball treatment of bribery and corruption allegations against Republican Bob Ney. Ney, who's now in prison, was officially subpoenaed for documents in the Abramoff scandal months before being asked "to temporarily relinquish the chairmanship of the House Administration Committee." Still, upon learning of "over-friendly" communications with a teenage boy, Hastert didn't even ask Foley to quit his post as chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus.

Prior to that, Hastert had bent over backwards to protect Tom DeLay and others, going so far as to replace the Republican head of the ethics committee when he attempted to actually enforce ethics rules. Then, when DeLay faced a determined Texas prosecutor in Ronnie Earle, Hastert went and changed the House ethics rules altogether. The changes were eventually repealed as they allowed too much leeway for even this House to deal with.

It's clear that this isn't a problem that can be taken care of by ousting one or two bad apples. It's institutional. Insider journal Roll Call writes:
As of Saturday evening, nearly a dozen House GOP lawmakers and staffers have acknowledged that they knew of the initial batch of nonsexually explicit messages from Foley to a 16-year-old former House page, some of them for a year or more. These include Hastert; Majority Leader John Boehner (Ohio); National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.); Reps. Rodney Alexander (La.) and John Shimkus (Ill.); Mike Stokke, the speaker’s deputy chief of staff; Ted Van Der Meid, Hastert’s counsel; Paula Nowakowski, Boehner’s chief of staff; Jeff Trandahl, the former clerk of the House; and another Hastert aide and Alexander’s chief of staff, according to public statements and GOP insiders.
Not one of the above ever told a Democrat about Foley's actions, including the only Democrat on the House page board, Rep. Dale Kildee. On Monday, the political maneuvering became even more vivid, with Hastert telling CNN that he was probably informed by Reynolds "in the context of maybe a half a dozen or a dozen other things ... that might have affected campaigns."

Winning campaigns is, of course, a necessity in this line of work. The problem has been that Hastert and much of the GOP-led congress has let the desire to win overshadow the best interests of the American people. It was the case with DeLay, Ney and now Foley, whose actions could have been hindered much earlier, were a better balance struck between elections and ethics.

Up to this point, the "coverup" had been a mostly passive one, sins of omission, shades of plausible denial and Reaganesque "I can't recall's." But then, as the first emails began to emerge, Tom Reynolds, whose job is to get Republicans elected, lent his chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, to Foley. Or "lent him back" to Foley, I should say, as Fordham was Foley's chief of staff for a decade. Fordham promptly attempted to bury his former boss's behavior by making a deal with ABC's Brian Ross, who broke the story:
The correspondent [Ross], who had dozens of instant messages that Foley sent to teenage House pages, had asked to interview the Florida Republican. Foley's former chief of staff said the congressman was quitting and that Ross could have that information exclusively if he agreed not to publish the raw, sexually explicit messages.
In effect, an operative from the office that promotes the election of Republicans attempted to suppress the most damaging elements of the emerging scandal. With just weeks to go before the midterm election, analysts are predicting that the fallout could be huge. The pundit zeitgeist seems to be favoring the natural disaster theme: "8 or 9 on the Richter scale," according to Hotline's Chuck Todd and John Mercurio.

But there's another dimension to this scandal which could prove even more damaging than the specifics of the Foley case and its coverup: the issue of gays in the Republican Party. Howie Klein expands on what Josh Bearman refers to as "karmic irony for Republicans." Meaning: the party of gay-haters being packed with gay politicians.

Klein notes that Republicans David Dreier, Jim Kolbe and Michael Huffington, are well known to be gay, in addition to a number Bush's high level staff who are thought to be as well.

Kenyn Cureton, vice president of the 16 million strong Southern Baptist Convention, noted recently that "Conservative Christians are somewhat disenchanted with Republicans," and that "It has not escaped our notice that they waited until just a few months from the November elections to address our agenda." The No. 1 priority on that agenda, ahead of abortion even, is gays.

In the Wall Street Journal last week, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey called the Christian right "thugs" and "nasty bullies," while the week before that, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson expressed his frustration at the Republican party, saying that he's "flat-out ... ticked."

As for Bush himself, in just the past two years, he's gone from 78 percent support from white evangelicals to a bruising 42 percent disapproval rating. Into this rift lands the Foley wedge. That wedge is widened by the fact that many in the GOP knew Foley was gay but didn't say anything for months or years -- a tacit acceptance, even for political reasons, of gays in the party.

In a post entitled "Pro-Homosexual Political Correctness Sowed Seeds for Foley Scandal," power pastor Tony Perkins writes: "Democrats seeking to exploit the resignation of Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., are right to criticize the slow response of Republican congressional leaders to his communications with male pages." Of course, he goes on to cite faulty data connecting gays to abuse, but the point remains, the rift is opening and the GOP is in danger of losing its lifeblood: conservative Christian votes.

On Monday's Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos stuck with the natural disaster theme to paint a grim picture:
Right now it's a category 3 hurricane and it's picking up steam. Republicans all across the country are getting questions about it. But here's the key question: Did any Republican leaders know about those x-rated emails? If they did, it's game over. The leadership will have to resign. It will cost Republicans control of Congress. As one top GOP aide told me this morning, "the place will burn down."
Evan Derkacz is AlterNet's associate editor and writer of PEEK, the blog of blogs.
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