- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Liberal pundits and Democratic politicians labored tirelessly last week refurbishing an old rhetorical overpass they hope leads to electoral victory. Optimistic that the ethics stories swirling around Washington help traverse the gulch separating them from retaking the majority, Democrats and their allies toiled overtime to turn the tempest into political gain.

Democrat leaders pulled out predictable saws, saying the recent ethics news was evidence of a “culture of corruption” and charged that Republicans were the “handmaidens” of special interests. But the engineering underlying the Democrats’ walkway to the political hallowed ground faces several structural flaws. And while ethical behavior is important, this project is building a bridge to nowhere.

For example, their strategyassumes charges of ethics violations by government officials will “shock” and “dismay” voters. I hate to disappoint, but even a cursory reading of survey research literature makes it clear: That kitty’s already out of the litter box.

Political scientists JohnHibbingand ElizabethTheiss-Morse wrote the book on the subject — literally — 10 years ago. The legislative branch traditionally struggles with public esteem, the scholars argue in “Congress as Public Enemy,” first published in 1995: “Congress embodies practically everything Americans dislike about politics,” they write. “Much of what the public dislikes about Congress is endemic to what a legislature is. Its perceived inefficiencies and inequities are there for all to see.”

Americans hold diverse views and values. The legislature is the crucible where these differences get smoked out.

In this environment, charges and counter-charges of ethics violations do not surprise voters, who unfortunately expect it as politics as usual in Washington just “part of the game.” Moreover, neither party has a monopoly on the public’s contempt; research suggests it’s an institutional indictment, loaded with bipartisan condemnation. So Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues are reading from a familiar script in the minds of most Americans, like reruns on TV. Most tune out, nonplused by the content. They believe it’s more of the same, a sick cycle of self-interest.

Bogus historical parallels also run rampant these days. For example, pundits and partisans draw dire comparisons for Republicans to the cases of former Speaker Jim Wright and Majority Whip Tony Coelho. Both resigned due to potential ethics charges. Yet few recall that this “ethics cloud” resulted in Democrats actually expanding their majority, producing a net gain of eight seats in the next congressional election.

Partisan polarization also limits the impact of the Democrats’ strategy. Liberals will no doubt use the ethics charges as a fundraising and mobilization tool among their base voters. But so will Republicans. In today’s highly polarized electorate, the voter impact of the Democrats’ strategy will likely cut both ways and help Democrats mobilize against Republicans, as well as the GOP trying to defend its own.

And when the increased polarization is mixed with the impact of redistricting, it produces a potent incumbent protection cocktail — another antidote to “ethics” mutating into widespread political harm for either party. Compared to a decade ago, voters are more overtly partisan. But based on the configuration of congressional districts, they are also distributed in more compact ideological islands. Republican districts contain more conservatives and Democrat more liberals. This means the number of marginal seats, regardless of the measure used (seats won with greater than 55 percent or those captured with more than 60 percent), has declined. Redistricting created a kind of partisan polarization on steroids and another reason why “ethics” may not produce the silver bullet some strategists want to load in their electoral guns next November.

Ethics charges against powerful congressional leaders resonate well inside the Beltway as reporters chase new leads, hoping the mighty fall while pundits contemplate the electoral fallout. Democrats contribute to the chaos, praying the politics of personal destruction substitutes for a yet-to-be-determined positive agenda. But outside of this city it’s unclear that anyone other than partisans — who will likely politically offset each other — pays much attention.

Democrats hope ethics becomes a conduit for electoral gains next November. But political reality weighs heavily on this shaky span and may cause its collapse. Maybe they need some new architects.

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