Campaigns/Elections

Won't Get Foley'd Again

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What's being said about the big campaign issues as candidates jockey for an advantage going into Nov. 7?

asap has brought together the voices of three bloggers from across the political spectrum, giving them an opportunity to sound off, in IM chats, on a major election issue each Thursday until Election Day.

This week's topic: the role of political ethics in campaign 2006.

The participants:

— Judd Legum, editor of ThinkProgress.org, a progressive blog run by the Center for American Progress in Washington

— Edward Morrissey, who runs the conservative Captain's Quarters blog

— Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of the libertarian journal Reason and blogger on the publication's Web site, Hit and Run

Note from the editor: In some cases, comments that participants sent at the same time have been reordered to make more logical sense. Also note that capitalization and punctuation of the original chat have been preserved. And in order to preserve the participants' privacy, their screen names have been replaced with … their actual names.

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asap: Everyone is still talking about Mark Foley's e-mails and instant messages. It makes for a great news story line, but should the former congressmen's indiscretions figure into voters' decisions on Nov. 7?

Nick Gillespie: yes absolutely.

Edward Morrissey: absolutely

Gillespie: or perhaps more important, the reaction and response of the gop leadership should be a big issue.

Morrissey: I believe that ethics forms a vital part of voter evaluation, over a broad range of issues.

Gillespie: both john boehner and dennis hastert have acted pretty poorly

Gillespie: in response to what's been going on.

Judd Legum: I think it goes to a broader question of how the House is being run.

asap: Judd, could you elaborate?

Legum: The leadership has—in many cases—chosen to tolerate unethical behavior.

Legum: For example, Bob Ney was able to stay on until he was indicted.

Legum: Long after his unethical conduct became clear.

Morrissey: The GOP has been in charge for 12 years, and it's certainly open for debate about the effectiveness of the leadership; the GOP made it an issue in 1994.

asap: Nick, could you explain what you meant in your comment?

Gillespie: sure.

Gillespie: the other day, in the cincy enquirer, boehner gave a classic triple denial:

Gillespie: he said he'd been told in passing on the floor about foley's behavior but that it wasn't cause for alarm to him…

Gillespie: then he said that the leadership didn't know anything about foley's behavior until it hit the papers…

Gillespie: then he said it was hastert's responsibility not his to police this kind of stuff…

Gillespie: i call it, in deference to midnight cowboy, passing the joe buck…

Gillespie: the abramoff scandal did not have legs among voters for the most part—it was much hotter among journalists than constituents—but the foley scandal is definitely hitting a nerve.

Gillespie: partly because of the way the leadership has refused to respond.

Morrissey: Look, the failure of Hastert and/or his staff to forward the issue to the page board was the father of all the political misery that followed. Had they followed the procedures, this would have been a nine-day story.

Gillespie: but that's the point. if they didn't follow procedure here, where else are they falling down?

Legum: I also think what was damaging was their insistence that the initial emails were only "overly friendly"

Legum: That is both an admission that the emails were inappropriate and an acknowledgment that there was a decision not to take them seriously.

Gillespie: it's worth remembering that congressional approval is down, what, in the 20s or 30s? people already think poorly of congress as an institution, regardless of how well they think of their own rep.

asap: Are we ready for question two?

asap: OK: We hear a lot about the term "ethics" in connection to politics. What sorts of things do you think voters are thinking of when they worry about ethics?

Morrissey: I think that local races will still focus mostly on policy …

Morrissey: but the ethics issues will certainly be part of that consideration, as it should be.

Gillespie: ethics and politics are like oil and vinegar. you need a mix of both, but they separate as soon as they hit the plate.

Legum: I think it goes to the fundamental question on the minds of all voters…

Legum: who does my congressperson represent?..

Legum: Our district and our country…

Legum: or are they more concerned with their own power and self-interest

Morrissey: I think they're looking at issues of transparency.

Gillespie: i think voters are willing to allow for all sorts of ethical issues–personal lifestyle, even bribes, etc—if they have a sense that either they are being taken care of as constituents or the people's business is being taken care of..

"Ethics and politics are like oil and vinegar. You need a mix of both, but they separate as soon as they hit the plate."
— Nick Gillespie

Morrissey: Nick, I think that equation is changing …

Gillespie: in what way?

Morrissey: Voters now think that if politicians are willing to sell themselves out …

Morrissey: why would they balk at selling out the voters?

Gillespie: how many voters think their own congressman is selling them out? as opposed to the bums who fill out the other 434 seats?

Gillespie: there's got to be a reason why congress gets returned at over 90 percent re-election rates…

Gillespie: in the end, i think concerns about ethics aren't that important.

Morrissey: Right! And that's why I think this issue will not have as much impact as local issues and policy on the specific races, but will have impact with independents and party affiliation.

Gillespie: in fact, ed, i'm agreeing with you that policy is more important than personal behavior

Morrissey: thx, Nick!

Legum: Part of the reason so many incumbents get re-elected

Legum: is that there is such a built-in advantage in terms of name recognition, money, etc.

Legum: that there are very few legitimate challengers, even in an election that is trending toward change

Gillespie: campaign finance reform is a bigger "ethics" issue than what foley did. it screws the ability of challengers seven ways to sunday.

asap: Here's another question:

asap: Are "ethics" the same as "values"? Should they be?

Morrissey: They're related, but not necessarily interchangeable …

Morrissey: values get expressed in policy as well as ethics.

Gillespie: electoral politics in the u.s.a. are mostly symbolic, i think. people like to vote for candidates who mirror them–appear to share the same values and sensibilities. hence bush over kerry…

Legum: I think we are really making false distinctions between "ethical" issues, "value" issues and "policy" issues. All concepts pervade virtually every decision a congressperson makes.

Morrissey: All legislation is a reflection of priorities and values. I think Judd has this right.

Gillespie: values are not the same as ethics. ethics are something that happen when no one is looking. "values" as we describe in today's politics are all about public statements and attitudes…

"I think we are really making false distinctions between 'ethical' issues, 'value' issues and 'policy' issues. All concepts pervade virtually every decision a congressperson makes."
— Judd Legum

Gillespie: so tom tancredo can rail against illegal immigrants even if he might have used some to remodel his house in colorado (

Gillespie: specifically a contractor he used employed illegals)…

Gillespie: or newt gingrich can say the democratic sex scandals are worse the gop ones with a straight face…

Gillespie: because even if gingrich married his math teacher and eventually a former aide, he rails against "woody allen" values..

Gillespie: values are about what you say and preach; ethics are about how you actually behave…

Morrissey: Ethics is about how the system works to create the legislation.

Legum: I suppose it's possible to have lousy values but still be ethical (i.e. follow the rules) but I doubt that happens too much.

asap: OK, moving on

asap: Here's a fun one

asap: What would you say has been the greatest ethical failure in politics in the past 10 years? Judd, you want to start?

Legum: OK.

asap: I realize this might require a quick brain scan

Morrissey: and a points system

Gillespie: i know i'm spinning through parts of my brain i had shut down long ago…

Legum: I'd say the war in Iraq. The way the war was sold, the way it was planned, the way it was conducted, the way it was spun after things started getting out of control.

Legum: And it has had a devastating impact…

Legum: in terms of human lives, in terms of dollars and in terms of our standing in the world.

"I believe that the fraud, waste and mismanagement of the Katrina recovery will be seen as the worst ethics breach of the last 10 years … either that or the explosion of earmarks and the exposure of the corruption that follows." — Edward Morrissey

Gillespie: i'm not sure that this is quite an ethics issue in the way that i've been describing it…

Gillespie: but i've got two major disappointments to consider.

Gillespie: as a libertarian–a believer in fiscal conservatism and social tolerance–i've been really disappointed that gop majority…

Gillespie: has governed in a way that is the exact opposite of their rhetoric. rather than cutting government spending (and embracing a "humble foreign policy" in bush's own words), they've gone in the other direction…

Gillespie: spending more than any president since LBJ and expanding the size and scope of the state…

Gillespie: and i'm genuinely disappointed by their refusal to practice federalism when it comes to issues such as medical marijuana…

asap: Ed, chime in

Morrissey: I'm going to avoid policy arguments and stick with mostly ethical issues …

Morrissey: I believe that the fraud, waste, and mismanagement of the Katrina recovery will be seen as the worst ethics breach of the last 10 years …

Morrissey: … either that or the explosion of earmarks and the exposure of the corruption that follows …

Morrissey: … and that will be not a story of the last 10 years as much as a realization of what's happened over several decades.

Gillespie: let me throw in something else: over the past decade, two presidents and a speaker of the house (gingrich) admitted to smoking dope and/or being substance abusers. yet the war on drugs proceeds unabated…

asap: Here's the last question

Gillespie: no i wouldn't let my kid be a page…

asap: Is it possible—or even desirable—to be a completely ethical politician on Capitol Hill?

Gillespie: yes, of course it's possible to be ethical. there are folks like rep. ron paul (r-texas) and barney frank (d-mass.) who do not routinely bend principle to partisan advantage.

Gillespie: these are people who have clear, articulated principles and stick to them. not uncoincidentally, they are also relatively uninfluential. alas

Morrissey: If it's not possible to be ethical when participating in representative government, then democracy has failed. Of course it's possible….

Morrissey: We have to elect people who do not serve to enrich themselves at our expense …

Morrissey: and we need to return to the concept of citizen legislators.

Gillespie: i think most congressman/women vote what they believe. it's just they don't believe in very much. or have a consistent, overarching philosophy.

Legum: I'm waiting for a Republican woman to come out and say anything even moderately supportive of Hastert. So far I haven't noticed a single woman in their caucus saying anything. I think that is important.

Legum: (off topic, but I figured I'd get that in)

Gillespie: one stray thought: if we accept that congress really is a native class of criminals, we'll let them get away with anything. we should be able to hold them…

Gillespie: to the same standard of behavior that we hold, i don't know, our least favorite in-law to.

Morrissey: maybe we should pay them more to retire than we do to serve? That would motivate some of them to leave!

Gillespie: incentives matter…

asap: Thanks to all of you, this will be great.

Gillespie: though i think post-congress lobbying careers already work as voluntary retirement plans for most of them…

Gillespie: thank you all…

Legum: You can't stop us Otis!

Legum: You've created a monster!

Morrissey: thanks, everyone!!

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This online chat originally took place on AP, and can be viewed in that format here.

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