Scandal, YouTube, Personal Charm Drive Political Fortunes in 2006
WASHINGTON – This year's midterm election was the obvious force — and the telling outcome — for many political fortunes this year, but scandal, sheer personal magnetism and even a little thing called the Internet played major roles.
In 2006, ratings skyrocketed for Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, and in nearly the same breath, the value of GOP stalwart Sen. George Allen plummeted. Democrats defeated Republicans, and even though old and new scandals caused rifts and black eyes in both parties, outside forces like the rising violence in Iraq tipped the balance toward Democrats, who will control both the House and the Senate again for the first time since 1994.
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With Election Day barely past, the 2008 presidential election is already looming large. Newsday columnist and FOX News contributor Jim Pinkerton said that in this race, the surface is as important as — maybe more than — the substance.
"For president, I think it's personality [that counts]. You need somebody who's stable and normal and kind of nice," Pinkerton said. For guidance, Pinkerton points to what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said allegedly about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that he "a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament."
"You need a leader who's got to be strong, but you need a temperament," Pinkerton said. And for the time being, Obama is winning the battle for best nice guy.
But just as many political fortunes seemed to hinge on who's face showed up on the Internet, and especially the new addition to the Web, YouTube.com.
"It's changed politics. It's reminded public officials that everything they utter in public can come back to haunt them," said University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato.
In one damaging clip that appeared on the video free-for-all, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., appeared to have trouble staying awake at a local meeting. That was nearly enough to lose the election on Nov. 7, though other issues contributed to his downfall.
At last check, Allen — the outgoing senator from Virginia — could still be seen on YouTube, saying: "Let's give a welcome to 'macaca' here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." Despite later saying that he only made up the word 'macaca' on the spot as a play on the activist's haircut, which looked vaguely like a Mohawk, it turned out that it is a racial epithet in other parts of the world. Add to that his staunch support for President Bush, and Allen fell to Democrat Jim Webb — by a hair.
But Internet-based video wasn't the only medium that made a difference this year. Grainy FBI footage from the 1980 Abscam scandal that ended with the indictment of congressional leaders may have been the breaking point for Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who was kept from rising to No. 2 in the Democratic ranks despite having a strong voice in military affairs and against the Iraq war. In the file video (also available on YouTube, just type "Murtha Abscam") Murtha appears to be negotiating to take a bribe. He was never charged, but it was enough of a specter for the Democrats to choose veteran arm-twister Steny Hoyer of Maryland for the House majority leader job instead.
One Democrat who barely was phased by scandal was Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana. FBI officials say agents found $90,000 in cash in the congressman's freezer in his New Orleans home and several people in the bribery investigation have been charged criminally. But Jefferson remains unindicted, and was re-elected by his constituents to return on Jan. 4.
The GOP bore the brunt of the scandal news, however. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff's pay-to-play scheming had a hand in the political demises Burns and Reps. Bob Ney and Tom DeLay. The concentric circles also hit Ney's hand-picked replacement, Joy Padgett and DeLay's GOP replacement, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed also lost his bid for the Georgia governor's house for his linkage to the now-jailed powerbroker.
Then came the news about Mark Foley, the Florida Republican congressman who sent sexually explicit e-mails to congressional pages. The scandal broke just weeks before the election, wrapping up the House GOP leadership in damage control rather than in election stumping.
Between scandals and a relatively light legislative schedule, Congress would be hard pressed to look worse before the American people, Sabato said.
"They didn't do much of anything, so just about everybody was unhappy" with Congress, Sabato said. Then again, he said only partly joking, it's not always a bad thing when Congress doesn't produce.
The Bush administration didn't fare much better, said Brookings Institution resident scholar Stephen Hess, especially if progress in Iraq was the leading indicator of how the administration should be judged.
"The administration gave us reason to believe that there should have been a turn around" in Iraq — elections, new government, a constitution. "It started to appear as if these chips were in place ... and then suddenly, it didn't appear that way at all," Hess said.
The one thing going for the administration is that it still appears able to draw solid talent, Hess said. Hess pointed to new Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs chief Henry Paulson, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Press Secretary Tony Snow.
The one lamentable staff change, Hess said, might be the loss of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. Bolton won a recess appointment in 2005 after being denied confirmation on the charge that he had too much bravado. But it turned out that Bolton wasn't so bad for the post, Hess said. Still, with no support in the new Democratic Congress, Bolton was forced to pack up and head home.
Scandal didn't overlook the White House either. The 2003 outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame still reverberated this year as the CIA leak investigation continued, making just about everyone it touched look bad, FOX News contributor and National Public Radio correspondent Juan Williams said.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is taking flak for charging I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby with tangential crimes related to Libby's allegedly trying to cover his tracks in the case. The prosecution of Libby still leaves open the question of whether any criminal activity occurred in the leak of Plame's identity.
It turns out that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the apparent source for Robert Novak's original column outing Plame and igniting the probe. But Vice President Dick Cheney will likely have to testify in Libby's quickly approaching trial and political adviser Karl Rove, though eventually cleared, spent half of the year under the cloud of a possible indictment.
Despite individual political institutions looking a little worse for the wear, as a whole the American democracy seems to be in tact, Williams said.
"We've got a thriving democracy" and it shows with the 2006 election, he said. While Bush won roundly in 2004, the Republican "thumpin'" is a sign that Americans can change things with their votes.
"The voters still send a powerful message that is heard here and abroad and that ability is one that we should just cherish and we should be so proud of as Americans," Williams said.