By Political Director
updated 10/4/2006 1:32:03 PM ET 2006-10-04T17:32:03
ON THE TRAIL

At this point in the news hurricane that is former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., figuring out just how bad the collateral damage is going to be for the GOP is akin to trying to guess if the roof is going to blow off of a house in the midst of a storm.

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Who knows? This feels big, like a tipping point. This is the type of story that if the GOP loses 30 or more seats, all of the incumbents who lose will be deemed "ex-Foley-ated."

There are two factors that have made this such a big deal: the timing and the response.

Let's start with the timing.

If this broke in April, we wouldn't be talking about it even three months later, let alone six months later. It would have been big at the time, but it would have subsided. Consider, for instance, how quickly some of this cycle's scandals have already faded, including those involving former Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., and Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But it hit during the worst possible week for congressional Republicans. It was just when Congress was recessing for the election, trying to tout their national security credentials and, more importantly, framing the security issue as a weakness for the Democrats.

Considering how well the White House was doing that in September, it's plausible that this contingent of Republican congressmen would be selectively effective in making Democrats look weak on terrorism.

But there isn't a race in the country right now where Iraq or national security is the dominant storyline. Some form of the Foley story is touching every race, including some governor's races.

The other reason this scandal feels big is the way the House GOP has responded when confronted with the news. Any crisis, whether in politics or life, is a leadership moment for someone. In this case, Speaker Dennis Hastert , R-Ill., and the entire House GOP leadership team fit that bill.

The fact that several members in leadership knew nearly a year ago that something was amiss with Foley and a page is the most damning thing.

What's been more disconcerting is watching the various members of the House GOP leadership make excuses for why they didn't do more at the time.

Why won't anyone simply step up and admit that they didn't do enough? This is a forgiving nation, so Hastert should have stood up and said something like:

"The halls of Congress have been disgraced, and as the Speaker, I take full responsibility for the mess. But it's also my job to clean up the mess. I should have done something sooner about this. But I didn't because I just didn't believe there was a pedophile in our midst. If I am guilty of anything, it's being naïve."

Maybe an offering like that would not have been enough for some, but it would have been more than what he's doing now. (Remember former Attorney General Janet Reno and the Waco incident?) If this had been Hastert's instinctive answer, it might have cast him in a sympathetic light, because no one wants to believe that someone they work with closely is a pedophile.

Instead, Hastert has made the institution look worse because he and others in leadership -- including National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds and Majority Leader John Boehner -- are hedging for excuses. The excuse -- "but the media had the same information" -- is a real doozy, considering how the Republicans are usually loath to admit the media is a proper watchdog.

And Monday's announcement by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., that promised the creation of a page hotline and heightened security at the page dorms was a disaster. Is Hastert trying to send the message that Foley isn't the only bad apple? That pages should always be concerned about misbehaving congressmen? Is the character of Congress so bad that a hotline and tighter security for pages is necessary?

Hastert's media tour on Monday hit every wrong note.

It's hard to believe the political malpractice that House Republicans committed. Hindsight is 20/20, sure, but it's hard to imagine that the party that boasts the better opposition research shop didn't follow up on this.

Forget whether this was a moral failure of the GOP leadership -- it certainly was -- but how didn't someone check to see if the smoke from that initial e-mail asking for a "pic" wasn't a full-blown pedophilia blaze?

It wasn't just moral malpractice; it was political malpractice.

The only member of Congress who appears to have conducted himself well in all of this is Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La. Apparently, Alexander felt uneasy enough about Foley's contact with his underage constituent that he sought out just about everyone to right the situation. Why no one else was as concerned as Alexander is odd.

Were House Republicans afraid to "go there"? Did they hope it would just go away? Or was it simply a concern that slipped through the cracks because the House GOP leadership team was in chaos at the time due to the resignation of DeLay as majority leader and the fight for the post between Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt and Boehner?

I don't think there was a cover-up. It was probably some sort of benign neglect by those who aren't paid -- or rather, elected -- to be benignly negligent on serious moral or political problems.

As for November, there may be little that can help the GOP, but there is a way to at least stop the bleeding: Someone needs to fall on the proverbial sword, and whether it's Hastert, Boehner or Reynolds may not matter. But if one of them doesn't do it, they may find that others will do it for them (see the Washington Times).

But here's a word of warning to the Democrats: Be careful not to gloat. Republicans overplayed the hand on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in '98. There's a line on this type of thing, because the public is already outraged. The last thing an outraged voter wants is someone beating them over the head with a moral sledgehammer.

Chuck Todd is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor and editor in chief of The Hotline. His e-mail address is ctodd@nationaljournal.com.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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