“That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed,
When the gales of November came early.”
– Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 1976
The gales of November may have come early for House Democrats, cloaked as the Ides of March.
If Democrats surrender control of the House this fall, people will point to March 3 as the day everything buckled.
Wednesday was a hellish day for House Democrats. It started just before 9:00 am with Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) relinquishing his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee due to an ethics probe.
Shortly after Democrats came to power in 2007, Rangel published his autobiography “…And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since.” The memoir chronicled how Rangel survived the streets of Harlem as a kid and joined the Army. Rangel was wounded in Korea during the battle of Kunu-ri and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for Valor. Rangel derived the title of his book from remarks he made that he hasn’t had a bad a day since Kunu-ri.
On Wednesday afternoon, Rangel met with fellow Democrats to explain why he gave up the Ways and Means gavel. Afterwards, a clutch of reporters descended on the Congressman. Mindful of the book title, I asked him if this had been a bad day.
“I haven’t had a bad day yet,” Rangel laughed. “But it’s been close!”
It may not have been a bad day for Rangel. But it sure was for Democrats.
On Wednesday, lawmakers gathered in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall to honor the late Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) who died unexpectedly last month. Murtha’s untimely passing throws his Pennsylvania seat into play this fall. By afternoon, President Obama unfurled his final health care reform plan. Mr. Obama hopes to flip the votes of the nearly 40 House Democrats who opposed the original health bill in November. But the president’s retrenched package failed to impress many moderate Democrats who voted no last year. Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK) was particularly outspoken.
“They can break my arms. They can do whatever they want to and they’ll never get my vote. Ever,” Boren said. “I mean they’ll have to walk across my dead body if they want my vote on this issue.”
Boren added that he thought a lot of House Democrats could lose their seats if they supported the bill.
By mid-afternoon, a brushfire sizzled across Capitol Hill. A male aide to rookie Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) accused his boss of sexual harassment. Massa called the allegation “totally false.” A Naval Academy graduate, Massa said the only thing he was guilty of was slinging around course language in the office.
“I am a salty old sailor,” Massa said.
But by Wednesday night, the office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said as soon as the leader found out about the accusation, he ordered Massa to refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee within 48 hours or he would do it himself.
On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) described the swirl of accusations surrounding Massa as a “one, two, three person removed rumor.”
However by Friday, Massa decided to just resign. Citing his sharp tongue.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I did in fact, use language in the privacy of my own home and in my inner office that, after 24 years in the Navy, might make a Chief Petty Officer feel uncomfortable,” Massa said.
No one knows what happened between Massa and the male aide. But when asked about Massa Wednesday, Hoyer invoked former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) without prompting. Foley resigned in disgrace in 2006 after sending inappropriate messages to teenage, male House pages.
“I don’t think it helps anybody in the institution---- anyone of us on either side of the aisle. It certainly didn’t help Mr. Foley,” Hoyer said. “And that’s why it’s so important that each of us conducts ourselves in a way that won't bring discredit on the institution.”
The notion of Foley is key. Not because of Foley’s lecherous communiqués. But because March 3, 2010 was eerily reminiscent of September 29, 2006 on Capitol Hill.
Republicans were on the ropes in the fall of 2006. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) had resigned under indictment. The GOP was beset by ethics woes that landed former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) in jail. Former Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) wasn’t far behind. And on September 29, 2006, the Foley dam broke. He resigned in disgrace.
Many noticed the similarities between Wednesday and September 29, 2006. One was Ron Bonjean who served as communications director to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) during the GOP’s 2006 meltdown.
“Thinking about it again is like reliving a root canal and remembering your own dental surgery,” Bonjean said.
In 2006, Republicans faced a climb to retain control of the House. September 29 was the final day Congress was to meet before the midterms. So the GOP structured the day to highlight their legislative achievements and underscore their message of fighting terrorism and maintaining a strong national defense. In fact, Republicans scheduled a press conference on a key security measure right before the Foley story erupted. Bonjean said Republicans debated whether they should cancel the press conference, knowing they had lost control of the message.
“But to cancel it would have put more blood in the water,” he said.
Still, Bonjean noted that Hastert felt it was important to address the Foley situation.
“We began to brace for impact,” Bonjean said.
The Foley scandal hijacked a day that Republicans wanted to use to burnish their image before lawmakers went home to campaign for a month. But Foley’s announcement pierced that. And it punctuated a distressing narrative that Republicans were corrupt and immoral.
Democrats seized control of both chambers of Congress 39 days later.
But there are problems with drawing parallels between March 3, 2010 and September 29, 2006.
Sports commentators often speak of teams “peaking early.” If Democrats are lucky, they may have “valleyed” early. In other words, the Republicans’ calamity unfolded five weeks before the midterm election. If Wednesday is the Democrats’ Waterloo, it came eight months early. Democrats also say the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) sent them an early wakeup call.
Here’s another key distinction: despite the alleged transgressions of Rangel and Massa, neither are under indictment or face criminal charges like Messrs. DeLay, Cunningham and Ney. Also, Democrats seem to have doused some of the flames by getting Rangel to step down as chairman. And to paraphrase boxer Roberto Duran, as of 5 pm Monday, House Democrats will have “no Massa.”
But is this the end of the Democrats’ troubles? Or is it the end of the beginning?
“This is an ethical valley they’re starting into,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR). “It may be the Grand Canyon.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT) disputed suggestions that Democrats were mirroring the path of Republicans four years ago.
“History more often than not is instructive. It doesn’t repeat itself,” Larson said. “Hopefully you learn from it.”
Regardless, distinct political winds are howling. And the question is whether the “gales of November came early” for Democrats when March blew in like a lion.