How Pat Moynihan predicted Vito Fossella.

Notes from the political sidelines.
May 13 2008 10:52 AM

Defining Deviancy Down

How Pat Moynihan predicted Vito Fossella.

80_thehasbeen

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On the Rocks:After years of comparing illegitimacy rates around the world—which were low in Italy, moderate in Germany, and astronomical in the United States—Sen. Pat Moynihan used to joke that out-of-wedlock birth rates increase in direct proportion to distance from the Vatican. Now another member of the New York delegation has gone out of his way to confirm Moynihan's theory. Vito Fossella Jr.'s office is a long way from Rome.

Moynihan offered an even more prescient explanation of Fossella's behavior in his famous essay "Defining Deviancy Down." Citing a sociologist's rationalization that "the number of deviant offenders a community can afford to recognize is likely to remain stable over time," Moynihan feared a vicious cycle of what another New Yorker, Fred Siegel, dubbed "moral deregulation": The more people bend the rules, the further some will go in bending them.

Human weakness may be a renewable resource, but public attention is not—so, no matter how many cads live in the tri-state area, only the most shameless can make the front page of the tabloids. According to the tabloids, Rep. Fossella's troubles began in December 2002, when he fell for Air Force legislative liaison Laura Fay on a junket to Malta. The Daily News marvels that their union could take root on such rocky soil: "Malta is not an obvious place for a love affair to flourish. Not unlike Staten Island, it tends to be a conservative place."

Of course, in those days, so was the House of Representatives. Speaker Dennis Hastert himself led that congressional delegation to Malta. The following summer, Hastert took Fossella and Fay along on another European junket. One person on the trip told the Daily News that the affair became an open secret in Spain, somewhere near the Alhambra. The newspaper claims that "word about the affair spread, and Republican officials soon became concerned, fearing it would be exposed, sources said." The tabloid implies that the Air Force dropped Fay as a legislative liaison because she was a little too good at it.

Obviously, Vito Fossella's personal life is not Dennis Hastert's fault. Perhaps the speaker had his nose in a guidebook or was rereading Washington Irving's classic Tales of the Alhambra. (Unexplored tabloid angle: The namesake for Irving's most famous character, Ichabod Crane, is buried on Staten Island—just like Fossella's political career.) Moreover, once you've accepted the ethics of congressional leaders and Pentagon staffers taking taxpayer-funded fact-finding missions to the tourist capitals of Europe, you don't have to be above the legal blood alcohol limit to have trouble seeing any bright lines.

Still, the leadership's avoidance and denial in this case is eerily similar to the last great House Republican sex scandal, involving former Florida Rep. Mark Foley. A House ethics committee investigation determined that Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, learned of Foley's page problem in 2002 or 2003, the same period as Fossella's budding romance. The House leadership did nothing about it. As the ethics committee report declared, "A pattern of conduct was exhibited among many individuals to remain willfully ignorant."

In time, those years may be remembered as the Era of Willful Ignorance. Mark Foley was busy IMing House pages. Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed were busy e-mailing each other. Tom DeLay was busy hounding the FAA to track down Texas Democratic legislators who had flown to Oklahoma.

Today's New York Postreports that Scott Palmer, the Hastert aide, knew about the Fossella-Fay problem, too. He did something but not about the wayward congressman. Instead, Palmer called the Pentagon and reported Fay for unprofessional behavior. "I lost confidence in her and I'm not going to kid you," Palmer told the Post. "I was also concerned with this other relationship thing. It didn't look like it should."

Five years later, Republicans no doubt wish their leaders had lost confidence in Fossella after the Alhambra instead of waiting for the mistress, love child, and DUI. But as Pat Moynihan warned, there's a limit to the number of ethically deviant members any community can afford to recognize at one time. … 10:52 A.M. (link)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Advertisement

Three's Company:For Democrats who still can't decide between Clinton and Obama, a third candidate has put his name on the ballot in the Idaho primary later this month. Keith Russell Judd is pro-choice, opposes No Child Left Behind, wants to end the war in Iraq, and once bowled a 300 game. There's just one catch: he's an inmate at a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, and won't get out until 2013.

Two decades ago, Idaho nearly re-elected a congressman who was on his way to prison. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone already in prison would see Idaho as a springboard to the White House.

Asked how a federal prisoner could qualify for the ballot, Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told the press, "We got conned." The state recently eliminated the requirement for candidates to gather signatures; now they just need to fill out a form and pay a $1,000 fee. According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, Keith Judd sent forms and checks to 14 states, but only Idaho put his name on the ballot.

Judd isn't the only out-of-state candidate on the primary ballot. Hal Styles Jr. of Desert Hot Springs, California, who has never been to Idaho, is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. For all the heartache and suffering that Larry Craig has caused the state, his arrest and subsequent humiliation have done wonders for candidate recruitment. Far from frightening people away, Craig has lowered the bar so much that even hardened criminals think they could win there.

Judd's 35-year membership in the NRA might give him an edge with some Idaho voters. But the road from Beaumont to Denver is a tough one. Idaho already selected its delegates in caucuses on Super Tuesday. The May 27 primary is just a beauty contest, and Judd seems to be going for the Willie Nelson look.

Even in a year when come-from-behind victories have become the norm, a come-from-behind-bars campaign requires exceptional resourcefulness. Judd used a Texas newspaper tip line as the phone number for his campaign office, and an IRS line in Ohio as the number for his campaign coordinator. He paid the $1,000 with a U.S. Treasury check drawn on his prison account.

Although no one has contributed to his campaign, Judd diligently files a handwritten FEC report every quarter. The FEC database shows Judd for President with $532,837 in total receipts, $11,285 in total expenditures, and an impressive $387,561 in cash on hand. With more than half a million in receipts, Judd's reported total exceeds that of Mike Gravel, who is practically a household name. The Huckabee and Giuliani campaigns would have done anything to match Judd's figure for cash-on-hand.

Running for president isn't a habit Judd picked up in prison, where he has spent the past decade since being convicted of making threats at the University of New Mexico. He has been running for office his whole life. He ran for mayor of Albuquerque in the early '90s, and tried to run for governor. He sought the presidency in 1996, 2000, and 2004 – when he won 3 write-in votes. He has filed more than 70 FEC reports going all the way back to 1995.

Judd has shown the same persistence in the courts, firing off appeals at a faster clip than Larry Craig. In 1999, after receiving a dozen frivolous cert petitions from Judd, the U.S. Supreme Court barred him from filing any more non-criminal claims unless he paid the required fees. In 2005, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals prepared an order noting that Judd had filed "at least 70 frivolous, duplicative and repetitive actions in this Court." By the time the order was issued, that number had reached 82.

Idaho has a long history of embracing maverick long shots, and Judd's iconoclastic background and platform won't hurt. He passes the Mickey Kaus test on welfare reform but not immigration. He favors eliminating all federal taxes so "the government can operate on its own self produced money." He wants to require gun licensing but let people carry concealed weapons. He says his national security views are "classified," but his Iraq position is "withdraw ASAP and forget it."

Judd plays the bass and bongos, belongs to the ACLU and the NRA, and admires JFK and Nixon. His nicknames are "Mr. President" and "Dark Priest," and his favorite athlete is a professional bowler. Bowling is hardly the rage in Idaho: In a fitting tribute to Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam's famous theory of social alienation, my hometown turned the bowling alley into a self-storage complex. Still, Judd's rivals can only envy his claim to have once bowled a perfect game.

Idaho pundits, who've had their fill of national attention, cringe over Judd's candidacy. "Jailbird Makes Us Look Silly," wrote the Ketchum Idaho Mountain Express. Others around the country note the irony that a felon can run but can't vote. The Illinois State University student newspaper, the Daily Vidette, defended Judd's right to run, but warned voters and party leaders not to support him: "All superdelegates should save their endorsements for candidates with a real shot."

At one particularly low moment of the 1988 campaign, a news crew tracked down Willie Horton and found out that if he weren't behind bars, he would vote for Dukakis. Give Keith Judd credit for passing up the chance to endorse Obama or Clinton, and running against them instead. ... 12:28 A.M. (link)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Running With the Big Dogs: While Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama deflected Charlie Gibson's question about running together, last week was a big one for Democrats' other dream ticket: any Republican pairing that includes Mitt Romney. With a well-received cameo at a national press dinner and nods from Great Mentioners like George H.W. Bush and Karl Rove, Mitt is back—and campaigning hard for the No. 2 slot.

When John McCain wrapped up the Republican nomination back in February, the odds against picking Romney looked long indeed. The two spent the entire primary season at each others' throats. Romney trashed McCain over "amnesty" for illegal immigrants; McCain joked that Romney's many flip-flops proved he really was "the candidate of change." Even Rudy Giuliani, not known for making peace, chimed in from Florida that McCain and Romney were "getting kind of nasty," implying that they needed to come chill with him at the beach.

Sure enough, after a little time off, Romney felt better—good enough to begin his vice-presidential audition. He went on Fox to say, "There really are no hard feelings." He interrupted his vacation in Utah to host a fundraiser for McCain. After months of dismissing McCain as a Washington insider, Romney flip-flopped and praised him as a longtime congressional champion of Reaganism. Lest anyone fail to notice, Romney confessed that he would be honored to be McCain's running mate, and practiced ripping into the potential Democratic nominees: "When it comes to national security, John McCain is the big dog, and they are the Chihuahuas."

Of course, any big dog should think twice before agreeing to a long journey with Mitt Romney. The past would not be easy for McCain, Romney, and their staffs and families to overcome. Before New Hampshire, McCain's alter ego, Mark Salter, called Romney "a small-varmint gun totin,' civil rights marching, NRA-endorsed fantasy candidate." After the primaries were over, Josh Romney suggested that the Five Brothers wouldn't be gassing up the Mittmobile for McCain anytime soon: "It's one thing to campaign for my dad, someone whose principles I line up with almost entirely," he told the Deseret News. "I can't say the same thing for Sen. McCain."

For Mitt Romney, that won't be a problem: Any grudge would vanish the instant McCain named him as his running mate. And by the Republican convention in September, Romney's principles will be due for their six-month realignment.

The more difficult question is, What's in it for McCain? Actually, Romney brings more to the ticket than you might think. As in any partnership, the key to happiness between running mates is a healthy division of labor. When Bill Clinton and Al Gore teamed up in 1992, Clinton had spent most of his career on the economy, education, health care, and other domestic issues; Gore was an expert on national security, the environment, and technology. Even the Bush-Cheney pairing made some sense: Bush cared only about squandering the surplus, privatizing Social Security, and running the economy into the ground; Cheney was more interested in hoarding executive power, helping narrow interests, and tarnishing America's image in the world.

So, McCain and Romney are off to a good start: They come from different backgrounds and share no common interests. McCain, a soldier turned senator, prefers national security above all else. As a former businessman and governor, Romney rarely brings up foreign policy—for reasons that sometimes become apparent when he does so. In his concession speech, Romney said he was dropping out to give McCain a united front against Obama, Clinton, and Bin Laden. "In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror," he said. "We cannot allow the next president of the United States to retreat in the face of evil extremism!!"

For the general election, the McCain campaign must decide what to do with conservative positions it took to win the Republican primaries. Here again, Romney is a godsend: a vice-presidential candidate who'll flip-flop so the nominee doesn't have to. No one can match Romney's experience at changing positions: He has been on both sides of abortion, talked out of both sides of his mouth on same-sex marriage, and been for and against his own health care plan. It's a market-based approach to principle—just the glue Republicans need to expand their coalition. Moderates might assume Romney was only pretending to be conservative, and conservatives will thank him for trying.

Straight talk is all well and good for presidential candidates. But as Dick Cheney demonstrated, the job of a Republican vice-presidential candidate is quite the opposite—keeping a straight face while saying things that couldn't possibly be true. Take the economy, for example. McCain gets visibly uncomfortable whenever he ventures beyond fiscal conservatism. Romney is more flexible. In an interview with National Journallast week, he had no trouble contending that corporate tax cuts help the middle class. He spent the primaries warning that the United States was on a slippery slope to becoming the next France. Now he's perfectly happy to argue that we have to cut corporate taxes to keep companies from moving to France.

In his surprise appearance at the Radio & Television Correspondents dinner in Washington last week, Romney showed another virtue that makes him perfect for the role—a vice-presidential temperament. With his "Top 10 Reasons for Dropping Out," he proved that he is ready to poke fun at himself on Day 1.

A vice president needs to be good at self-deprecation, yet not so skilled that he outshines the boss. By that standard, Romney's audition was perfect: He chose good material ("There weren't as many Osmonds as I had thought"; "As a lifelong hunter, I didn't want to miss the start of varmint season") and delivered it just awkwardly enough to leave the audience wondering whether to laugh or feel slightly uncomfortable.

After watching him up close in the primaries, Team McCain no doubt harbors real reservations about Romney. Some conservatives distrust him so much, they're running full-page ads that say, "NO Mitt." A Google search of John McCain, Mitt Romney, and food taster produces more than 100 entries.

But looking ahead to a tense fall campaign, McCain should put those concerns aside and listen to voices from across the spectrum. This could be the issue that unites the country across party lines. Democrats like a little fun at Mitt Romney's expense. The McCain camp does, too—perhaps more so. And after last week, we know that—ever the good sport—even Romney's all for it. ... 2:14 p.m. (link)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Twist and Shout:When the news broke last August that Larry Craig had been arrested in a restroom sex sting, he had a ready answer: The Idaho Statesman made him do it. He claimed that the Statesman's monthslong investigation into whether he was gay made him panic and plead guilty. Otherwise, he said, he feared that what happened in Minneapolis might not stay in Minneapolis, and the Statesman would make sure the voters of Idaho found out.

Craig's jihad against the Statesman didn't go over too well in Idaho, where people are more likely to read the newspaper in the restroom than worry about it afterward. On Monday, the Statesman was named a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting for what the committee called "its tenacious coverage of the twists and turns in the scandal involving the state's senator, Larry Craig."

The story took yet another strange twist and turn this week. For the past six months, the entire political world has been wondering why Craig promised to resign when the scandal broke, then changed his mind a few days later. In a rare interview Wednesday with the congressional newspaper the Hill, Craig finally found someone to blame for staying in the Senate: The people of Idaho made him do it.

According to the Hill, Craig said "support from Idahoans convinced him to reverse his pledge to resign last year." This was news to most Idaho voters, who have viewed the whole affair with shock, outrage, embarrassment, and dismay. But Craig didn't stop there. The Hill reports that he also said his decision not to run for re-election "pre-dated the controversy."

Last fall, Craig stunned Idahoans by insisting he was not gay, not guilty, and not leaving. Now he says it's our fault he never left, he was leaving anyway, and if he's not running, it's not because we don't believe him when he says he's not guilty and not gay.

Unfortunately, Craig's latest explanation casts some doubt on the excuse he gave last fall. If he had already decided long ago that he wasn't running for re-election, he had less reason to panic over his arrest, and much less to fear from voters finding out about it back home. In September, he made it sound as if he pled guilty to a crime he didn't commit to avoid a political firestorm back home. If politics were of no concern, he had every reason to fight the charges in court. For that matter, if he was so sure he wouldn't run again, he could have announced his decision early last year, which might have staved off the Statesman investigation before it got started.

Craig's latest revelation undermines his defense in another way as well. If he is telling the truth that he had made up his mind not to run before his arrest, that would be the best explanation yet for why he risked putting himself in a position to get arrested. Eliot Spitzer's re-election prospects plunged long before he got caught, too.

Nothing can fully explain why public figures like Craig and Spitzer would flagrantly risk arrest. But we can rule out political suicide if they'd already decided their political careers were over. ... 3:55 p.m. (link)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

B.Looper: Learned reader Kyle Sammin recalls that Idaho's Marvin "Pro-Life" Richardson has nothing on 1998 Tennessee State Senate candidate Byron "Low-Tax" Looper. Besides changing his name, Looper also murdered his opponent. Under Tennessee law, the names of dead candidates are removed from the ballot. So even though he was quickly charged with homicide, Looper nearly ran unopposed. The victim's widow won a last-minute write-in campaign. Looper was sentenced to life in prison.

Bloopers: The Pittsburgh Pirates are now the most mediocre first-place team in baseball history. In their season opener Monday night against Atlanta, the Bucs provided plenty of evidence that this year will turn out like the last 15. They blew a five-run lead in the ninth by walking four batters and booting an easy fly ball. Pirate players said they'd never seen anything like it, not even in Little League. For an inning, it looked like the team had gone on strike to demand more money.

But to every Buc fan's surprise, the Pirates won, anyway—12-11 in 12 innings—and with no game Tuesday, Pittsburgh has been above .500 for two glorious days. New General Manager Neal Huntington e-mailed me on Monday to promise that the team's new regime is determined to build an organization that will make the people of Pittsburgh proud again. That might take a while. For now, we're content to make the people of Atlanta feel really embarrassed. ... 1:35 p.m. (link)