It is payback time for Republicans, who have been burying Democrats in a blizzard of attacks about a “pay-to-play” scandal that has embarrassed and distracted Barack Obama‘s presidential transition and tax-evasion charges against a powerful political ally in the House.
Two years ago, it was the Democrats who were pounding congressional Republicans for a string of lobbying, legislative-payoff and sex scandals, but now it’s the Democrats and President-elect Obama who are on the defensive a little more than one month before they are to take charge of the government and strengthen their grip on Congress.
Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, whom Mr. Obama endorsed and supported in two gubernatorial campaigns, was arrested last week by federal authorities in a brazen “pay-to-play” scandal said to involve attempts to extract payoffs for filling Mr. Obama’s open Senate seat.
And Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the influential chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee — who would be in charge of Mr. Obama’s tax plan — is being investigated for, among other things, failure to pay his taxes and helping a wealthy donor to a center named in his honor to obtain a tax loophole in return for a large contribution to the facility.
Last week, Republican campaign committees unleashed a barrage of press releases promoting a flood of press stories about the Democrats’ latest troubles with headlines that read “Did Obama team have contact with Ill. governor?”; “Rangel’s troubles create a problem for the Democrats”; and “Democrats’ web of corruption continues to grow.”
The smell of a partywide scandal “might be building, though it’s not there yet,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior political analyst at the Cook Political Report. “But Democrats who have won on this message of ‘culture of corruption’ now find the tables have turned on them, and they do have to be very careful that it doesn’t get bigger.”
“It’s a distraction they don’t need right now,” she said.
The Democrats have been hit by one scandal after another in the past year that have toppled some of their party’s biggest names. New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer was forced to resign his office after being caught in a high-priced prostitution ring. Flamboyant Democratic Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana, awaiting trial on bribery charges and money laundering, was defeated in a runoff election last week by a little-known Republican in a heavily Democratic district. Florida Rep. Tim Mahoney, who replaced disgraced Republican Mark Foley — forced out in a congressional-page scandal — was defeated last month after purportedly keeping his mistress on the House payroll and trying to buy her silence.
Mr. Obama has said that no one in his transition team was in involved in the scandal engulfing Mr. Blagojevich and has begun an internal investigation to see whether anyone else connected with his campaign may have spoken to the governor or his staff about filling his Senate seat.
However, political analysts acknowledged the full story is still not known, and Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who will be Mr. Obama’s White House chief of staff, has refused to answer reporters’ questions about whether he was the “president-elect adviser” who spoke to the governor about filling Mr. Obama’s Senate seat, according to the U.S. attorney’s complaint in the case.
“I suspect we will know in a few days whether there is any problem for Obama from the Blagojevich mess. No harm in Obama’s staff speaking with Blagojevich and expressing a preference for the appointment, as long as they didn’t offer anything in return,” said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.
“We are far from a critical mass of corruption problems to harm the new administration,” he said.
But last week, Republicans were not waiting for Mr. Obama’s report and stepped up a drumbeat of statements about the scandals that have created a dark cloud over the Democrats as they prepare to take the reins of power next month.
“The serious nature of the crimes listed by federal prosecutors raises questions about the interaction with Governor Blagojevich, President-elect Obama and other high-ranking officials who will be working for the future president,” said House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.
At the same time, the National Republican Congressional Committee let loose a steady stream of attacks against Mr. Emanuel, who has a reputation for playing hardball politics, for refusing to answer questions about whether he spoke to Mr. Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy.
“Considering Rahm Emanuel’s penchant for being one of the most outspoken political hit men in Washington, it speaks volumes about his possible role in the Blagojevich scandal that he refuses to answer a single question from the press,” said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain.
“He spoke to the governor of Illinois, and his silence on it is deafening. This was a campaign that was predicated on changing the way business is done in Washington, but he refuses to come clean about it,” Mr. Spain said.
Ms. Duffy thinks the Blagojevich scandal “is pretty darn serious” for the Democrats, “but I’m not sure this is serious for Obama. In fact, it’s probably not serious at all for Obama. The problem for the Democrats as far as Blagojevich is concerned, there’s not an easy way out of this” if he refuses to resign. Impeachment or legal action can take many months.
That means “the Republicans could have an opportunity to take this seat. I think a special election would give them the chance to do that with a credible candidate, and one of the House Republicans could run without giving up their seat,” she said.
But many observers and analysts believe that in the end, the Rangel investigation may pose a much more difficult political problem for Democrats to resolve and further fuel the GOP’s charges of Democratic corruption in high places.
“The betting among House Democrats is that Rangel will survive,” Wall Street Journal analyst Gerald Seib wrote last week, but others aren’t so sure.
“The Rangel situation is not good. [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi had done a good job of fending off demands that he give up his chairmanship. That might get a lot harder now,” Ms. Duffy said.