A Foley Damage Assessment — So Far

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Before another shoe drops, it's a good time to take stock of the damage Mark Foley, the one-man Republican wrecking crew, has done to his party in the last seven days.

First the obvious stuff: After weeks of pot-banging by President Bush about the future of Western civilization — a campaign designed to divert attention from Iraq and wake his party's disaffected base from its slumber — Foley has given a few key segments of the Republican coalition a jaw-dropping reason to stay home. It's hard to conceive a piece of news more likely to dampen the turnout of social conservatives than predatory sexual practices by a closeted gay Republican leader. I also doubt that the Republican coalition-minders were pleased when Foley blamed his problems on an adolescent encounter with a priest; the last thing the G.O.P. needs is for Catholics to stay home, too.

Meanwhile, the party's sloppy management of the Foley problem — and it is clearer with each day that Foley's funky personal page outreach program has been known about for some time — has put a handful of safe Republican seats suddenly at risk. Seven days ago, the congressional seats of Foley, Speaker Hastert, Rep. John Shimkus and Rep. Thomas Reynolds were all in the safe column. Now Foley has resigned; Hastert looks to be next; and it is inevitable that Shimkus and Reynolds will have to spend more time talking about how they handled the Foley affair than either imagined a week ago. Every Republican running for office who took Foley's PAC money — and even some who did not — will have some explaining to do. Seven days ago, it took some clever accounting to see how the Democrats could pick up 15 seats. Now it's not so hard.

Finally, there is the corrupted culture argument, which is in some ways the most potent. Sex scandals in politics, whether gay or straight, are usually about an abuse of power. Foley was using his position as an elected representative to allegedly troll for action in the page school. He got caught, but he is the only the latest House member to resign under a cloud this year. The House Republicans are on their third speaker in 11 years in power; the previous two were forced out by scandal as well. Tom DeLay stepped down as leader and then announced his retirement under the threat of an indictment. Those left behind are self-destructing and forming a circular firing squad, another desperate attempt at self-preservation and protection of power that may well achieve just the opposite.

It's a dangerous obsession for a party in peacetime. In time of war, it could be fatal.