Is anyone going to defend Idaho Sen. Larry Craig? OK, fine, I will.
Perhaps "defend" is too strong a word. In the Swift Boat era of attack-and-respond politics that he helped sponsor, Craig is hardly an innocent bystander. Still, the 10-day-old episode does reveal far more about the Republican Party's mind-set in the late summer of 2007 than about Craig's on that fateful day last June.
Indeed, as they stumble through the second week of the fiasco, Republicans who rushed with such trained alacrity to throw Craig under the bus -- and are now grappling with his attempted comeback -- might want to consider their own behavior before they further condemn his. Would Craig now be so eager to return to Washington, to clear his name and serve the remaining 16 months of his Senate term, if his own allies (for obvious reasons and with clear motives) hadn't so desperately proclaimed his unproven guilt?
Mitt Romney, a longtime friend of Craig's, admitted he didn't know many details of the case. But that didn't stop him from immediately scrubbing his presidential campaign Web site of references to Craig, comparing him to former Rep. Mark Foley and calling his behavior "disgusting" and a "disappointment." Within 48 hours, many fellow Republicans piled on. "When you plead guilty to a crime, then you shouldn't serve," Sen. John McCain proclaimed, overlooking numerous examples that contradict his logic.
By the weekend, Craig's 27-year career in Congress was all but over and Washington started getting to know Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, the new senator-in-waiting.
Enter Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., no ideological soul mate, who urged his colleague to stay and fight. Which, it now appears, Craig plans to do.
Republicans, who haven't had a solid month of good news since early 2006, are furious that Craig would prolong this drama. But make no mistake; party leaders could easily have stanched this bloodletting. Rushing to prove how much they'd learned since their slow response to previous scandals destroyed their congressional majority last year, party leaders failed to fully assess Craig's case, much less consult with him, before demanding his head.
"That's one of the things I'm proudest about our leadership is the swift action," Sen. John Ensign, the beleaguered chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said last weekend. "It was best for himself, best for his family, and best for the institution of the Senate."
Is Ensign feeling the same way today?
Democrats have noted a double standard in the way Senate Republicans have responded to Craig and another scandal-tarred colleague, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who had the good fortune to become embroiled in a heterosexual scandal and hails from a state that currently has a Democratic governor. Despite a stormy week or two, Vitter, who would presumably be replaced by a Democrat if he resigned, has emerged with few if any political scars.
But deeper contradictions exist.
Consider, for example, the Senate GOP's very different response to another public relations disaster in their not-so-distant past. When then-Majority Leader Trent Lott openly endorsed the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond during the senator's 100th birthday party in December 2002, party leaders shrugged. Only after it emerged nearly two weeks later that Lott had repeatedly voiced similar sentiments did the party convince him to abandon his leadership post. (But even that effort wasn't entirely a response to Lott's comments. It was led by a White House which for months had been trying to install a key ally, Bill Frist, in a top leadership post.)
Lott never resigned. Four years later, he's again climbing his party's leadership ladder.
Win or lose in his comeback bid, Craig will be back in Washington sometime this month, a spokesman said, "at the minimum just to say goodbye to folks and deliver a speech on the floor."
Before Craig schedules that time on the Senate floor, Republicans might want to start returning his calls.