Polls Show Issue Not Helping Democrats
October 11, 2006
By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau Chief WASHINGTON -- When the congressional page scandal broke last month, Democrats across the country saw a chance to lambaste Republican leadership - including Diane Farrell, who called on House Speaker Dennis Hastert to step down.
But when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy came to Connecticut last week to help her campaign, Rep. Christopher Shays hit back.
"I know the speaker didn't go over a bridge and leave a young person in the water, and then have a press conference the next day," said Shays, R-4th District, referring to the 1969 incident in which the Massachusetts Democrat drove a car that plunged into the water and a young campaign worker died.
"Dennis Hastert didn't kill anybody," he added.
Shays' words were emblematic of the increasing bitterness over the fallout from the conduct of former Florida Rep. Mark Foley, a scandal that may not be helping Democrats as much as they had hoped.
The GOP had seemed to be in deep political trouble a week ago, when many Democrats were stridently insisting that Hastert quit - and pressing their Republican opponents to make the same demand.
But so far, the Democrats' idea to make Hastert the villain has not worked.
An ABC News/Washington Post survey taken Oct. 5 to 8 found that three of every four respondents did not think Democrats would have handled the Foley matter any better, and roughly two in three thought Democrats were pursuing the matter for political gain, not to raise legitimate concerns.
"The Foley scandal has not earned the Republican leadership any goodwill, but neither does it look like a point of differentiation for the Democrats," poll director Gary Langer said.
A Pew Research Center survey taken Sept. 21 to Oct. 4 had similar findings. Before the Foley scandal broke, voters preferred Democrats to Republicans by 13 percentage points - and after the congressman resigned Sept. 29, the margin was the same.
Job approval of Republican leaders, 33 percent before Foley quit, went up 1 percentage point afterward.
In the days ahead, said some analysts, Democrats need to be careful they do not appear to be leading a lynch mob.
"It could look to some people like they're not interested in due process," said Richard F. Fenno Jr., professor emeritus of political science at the University of Rochester.
Such doubts about whether Democrats' calls for resignation are being accepted are prodding Republicans to take roads lofty and not so lofty.
Shays, Reps. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District, and Nancy L. Johnson, R-5th District, have made carefully worded statements they hope will portray them as both tough and fair.
"If any leader from either party tried to cover up this information at the expense of the safety of our children, then they should resign their position immediately," Johnson said, adding it would be "reprehensible if any Republican leader intentionally covered up the full facts of the case."
They all stopped short of naming names, but Shays went further, drawing a link between Hastert and Kennedy.
"We don't know what he has or hasn't done," Shays said of Hastert. "But she had a fundraiser for Sen. Kennedy, and we know what he did."
Farrell was incredulous - "my jaw dropped," she said, when she heard Shays' comments, and she said Chappaquiddick had nothing to do with Hastert's current plight.
In July 1969, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island off Massachusetts. Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old campaign worker riding in the car, was trapped in the vehicle and died.
Kennedy left the accident scene, waited several hours before telling police, and a week later made a nationally televised speech to explain his actions. He later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury, and received a two-month suspended sentence.
Shays' point is that if Farrell is going to host Kennedy, she has no business judging Hastert at this point. "Democrats keep talking about denying him and others their rights," Shays said.
Farrell blasted back at Shays, saying he "has taken the political approach first" rather than making concern for the pages his paramount interest. Farrell, whose daughter was a page four years ago, said "it's Congress' responsibility" to protect not only the pages, but the parents "like me and my husband."
Because Hastert was in charge, she said, he should step aside until the investigation is complete.
Other Democrats agreed, and said they would continue to seek Hastert's removal.
"You don't have to find the speaker guilty of a crime to say he shouldn't lead the House," said Sarah Merriam, campaign manager for Chris Murphy, Johnson's Democratic opponent. "Leadership has responsibilities, and it has to take responsibility when something like this happens."
Analysts warned that Democrats need to be circumspect as the House Ethics Committee and the FBI continue their probes.
"Democrats need to be careful," said Lance deHaven-Smith, professor of public policy at Florida State University. "This could backfire on them."