Democrats can go too far with Mark Foley.

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Oct. 2 2006 7:44 PM

Foley Fallout

There is a way Democrats can go too far.

Mark Foley. Click image to expand.
Mark Foley

The Mark Foley scandal has already accomplished two difficult feats: It has made a deeply unpopular Congress look even worse, and it has replaced Iraq and terrorism as Political Topic A. It's hardly the message-shift GOP leaders were looking for.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

In the end, the political story may be that the ickiness of the disgraced congressman's instant messages swamps House Republicans. Who cares if GOP House leaders saw only hints of Foley's proclivities? Voters aren't sifting through the fine details. It's all too sickening. The judgment could be swift: Foley was a Republican, and the Republican leadership knew something, so out with the lot of them. If Democratic anger over this doesn't do in congressional Republicans, then disappointment and disillusionment at the whole sordid business will keep Republican voters home on Election Day.

Democrats would be happy with either outcome. But there's a potentially ugly side to their glee: For this scandal to cause lasting damage to GOP leaders, Democrats may have to use homophobia in a way usually associated with the Republican Party.

It's clear that GOP leaders would like the political story to be about Mark Foley's unique sickness. The former congressman has done his best to help. First, he was really sick. Second, he resigned immediately and checked himself into rehab, citing both psychological and alcohol problems. He's literally taken himself out of the picture while at the same time enforcing the narrative that he was depraved but not part of a larger GOP problem.

That hasn't rescued the GOP leadership. It turns out they knew at least enough about Foley that they warned him to stop being so friendly to at least one underage boy. But at the moment, all we know that can inform our outrage at GOP leaders is that they knew of some "overly friendly," as Speaker Hastert put it, e-mails from Foley to a young page. There's no evidence that they knew about the truly twisted stuff. Based on these e-mails, one of which asked for a young page's picture, GOP leaders met with Foley and told him to cut it out.

The question is whether Republican leaders were grossly negligent or clumsily stupid. (Great choice!) The former is a political disaster. The latter, less so. Clearly, they should have done more. Simply asking for a picture is beyond the pale. GOP leaders might not have done the right thing because they wanted to protect a safe GOP seat. But my reporting suggests for the moment that instead of being craven, they were just incompetent wimps. They knew Foley was gay and in the closet, and they just didn't want to get into whether he was following through on his flirting. When he explained that his e-mails were just a part of mentoring, they were probably relieved. Foley had given them an excuse they wanted to believe.

The ultimate judgment of this affair may be that it's just more dumb behavior by Republican leaders, and that may be enough to help Democrats with the midterm election, especially if this incident is seen as the final insult. But voters, particularly Republican voters, might pay attention to the facts (assuming more ugly ones don't come out) and use them to absolve their party's leaders. Sure, they could have handled the situation better, but who could know that Foley was going after young boys?

If that's how Republicans respond, this won't be the political doom Democrats hope it will be. The saga has too much political potential for them to allow that to happen. The narrative is far easier to understand than the Jack Abramoff scandal, and at least in the early rounds, the pressure has caused GOP leaders to point fingers at each other. But for this to become a brush fire may require courting homophobes to generate sustained and impenetrable outrage.

Usually it's the GOP that embraces gay-bashing. The gay marriage issue bailed out Bush in 2004, when ballot initiatives helped draw evangelical voters to the polls, and it may have provided Bush with his margin of victory in the decisive state of Ohio. To be against gay marriage is not necessarily to be against homosexuals, but for the party to wield it as a successful electoral issue requires a coalition that includes those who have a sustained dislike for gay people. It's the engine that the GOP doesn't want to talk about, but it's there.

This is about preying on a young person, not sexual orientation, say Democrats. They're right. These pages are not just young; they are employed as part of a compact. Parents send their teenagers to Washington thinking they're being looked after. One former page told me the power relationship was so skewed that she would have been thunderstruck if a member had talked to her at all. But what if the inappropriate relationship were between a congressman and a 16-year-old female page? Would GOP leaders face the same outrage for missing the warning signs? What if we were judging their actions toward a congresswoman who asked for a picture of a 16-year-old female page? For GOP leaders to pay a heavy political price requires either more evidence that they really knew what Foley was doing or for Democrats to form an alliance, at some level, with people who find homosexuality outrageous no matter what the age.