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updated 10/3/2006 8:32:26 PM ET 2006-10-04T00:32:26

An Iraq war that has cost us nearly half trillion dollars – and the good will of the world – might not have done it. Runaway federal spending that allowed the national debt to reach $8.5 trillion might not have done it. George Bush’s low approval ratings, the lack of comprehensive immigration reform, the historical pattern of an anti-incumbent “six-year itch” in presidencies, the cascade of stories about administration ineptitude and dissembling and congressional financial and lobbying corruption — none of these issues seemed destined to end the Republicans’ 12 year reign in Congress.

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Then came the Foley Scandal. If the Democrats can’t take the Hill now, they deserve to go the way of the Whigs.

Real Americans outside the Beltway don’t look at politics the way we do here. I call Washington the Cave of the Sightless Fish: we hear everything, see nothing.

In the real world, families don’t care about abstract “investigations” into “who knew what when.” While the Beltway is trying to figure out whether Speaker Denny Hastert can save his job (he is dangling by thread), the real world is focused on children: in this case, the 16-year-old congressional pages.

There is cause for concern. Parents send kids to schools that are targets of attack. They send them into a popular culture of numbness and corrosion. They send them to college loaded with debt and worried about the fate of the planet. Families can empathize — deeply — with parents who sent their children to Washington. The pages were supposed to learn about civics and government, not sexual predation.

In America — or anywhere, really — scandals don’t crystallize into Scandals until they turn into gripping personal narratives.

The sad, sordid vividness of Bill Clinton’s liaisons with an intern named Monica Lewinsky nearly cost him the presidency. The Watergate tapes made Richard Nixon an all-too-dramatic and familiar character: a mix of Al Capone and King Lear.

Rep. Mark Foley and the pages will now become the faces and stories that define a time. Polls showed that “political corruption,” per se, was not cutting much. But that was when it was defined primarily by money. Now sex is involved, and nothing screams “Out of Touch” like the way the House hierarchy handled the Foley matter.

Read the supposedly benign and ambiguous emails that the House leadership has known about for nearly a year. If they were so benign why did they warn Foley to have no further contact with the boy in question? And if they did warn Foley, why didn’t they launch an investigation?

The Foley Scandal is a missile aimed at the heart of the GOP’s most important base constituency: evangelical, Bible-believing Christians, who were already upset with the administration on a host of issues — including spending and immigration.

It’s going to get uglier from here. The GOP will respond by unearthing old stories of sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill. I know that the search is on for complaints, however old, about unnamed Democrats who might have come on too strong to male or female pages.

Democrats are focusing for now on Hastert’s fate, and the “who knew what when” angle, but will soon get back to Foley himself — and those excruciatingly explicit instant messages.

Can Democrats blow it even now? Sure. They don’t have the money and the machinery Republicans do.

2006 key races

More important, the Democrats’ message is murky. In the Senate, they decry the Mexican fence, then more than half of them vote for it. They label the Iraq war as a mistake, then vote $70 billion more for it. They object to Bush’s torture bill, yet flinch at a chance to block it in the Senate.

It was that kind of profound indecision on a moral issue (slavery) that led to the demise of the Whigs before the Civil War.  The Foley Scandal means that Democrats might be able to succeed with a campaign slogan that says, simply, “Had Enough?” But if they take control of Congress, they’ll still have to do what the Whigs could not, which is explain what they are for, not just what we all are against.

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