As the scandal over Rep. Mark Foley's pederastic communications with House pages escalates into a debate over the future of Speaker Dennis Hastert and the Republican majority, our recommendation to the GOP would be to raise the stakes. Mr. Foley's actions are inexcusable and his resignation is a good first step in resolving this matter, but there is a broader political dimension to this story. Republicans are now concerned that the scandal will dent support from the conservative base heading into the elections. If that turns out to be the case, it will be not a result of this scandal alone but because this scandal was the last straw for voters to whom congressional Republicans had given little reason to overlook the Foley debacle.
Mr. Hastert is in the middle of a maelstrom at the moment over questions of what he knew about Mr. Foley's communications with teenage male pages and when he knew it. Democrats suggest the leadership ought to have performed a more intensive investigation when Mr. Foley's colleagues first became aware of rather unorthodox e-mails sent by the congressman. Those e-mails are not nearly as explicit and disturbing as the transcripts of Internet instant messages that have only recently been made public. But Mr. Hastert's apparent inaction when the emails first surfaced has led the Washington Times to call for Mr. Hastert to step aside.
We carry no brief for the speaker. But it all reminds us a bit of the editorial the Jewish Forward issued during President Clinton's scandals. It ran under the headline "How To End Whitewater." The paper's recommendation was to bomb North Korea. Were the president doing something inspiring, its logic went, people would look past the individual scandals. The same logic obtains for the Congress. Republicans are feeling the heat on this because they have so little else to say for themselves. They have been fiscal disappointments, allowing deficits to balloon in absolute dollar terms by resisting entitlement reform and spending restraint. They've failed to make permanent their greatest fiscal achievement, the Bush tax cuts.
Even on the Iraq war, where the Republicans have right on their side, they've been wringing their hands on the war almost as badly ó though not as badly ó as the Democrats. It's hard to think of an inspiring struggle in which the Republicans are engaged on the Hill. We'd like to think the GOP can still attain a victory despite the Foley scandal. In a special election to replace the imprisoned Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, voters showed that they won't necessarily punish candidates for the sins of others. Whatever Mr. Hastert's political fate, the best thing for Republicans in Congress to do would be to rouse themselves in a policy fight worth fighting.