US2012: GOP’s gigantic headache

By J Brooks Spector 21 August 2012

When this election is over and the flags and bunting are packed away again, Republican strategists may just possibly look back on the dog days of August as the time when their fortunes started to head south. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

While most Americans are trying to squeeze their last days of vacation out of summer, Democratic activists are taking careful measure of a breathless report that appeared on the Politico website describing an ongoing FBI investigation into reports about a trip taken by a gaggle of Republican congressmen and their staff members to Israel last year.

According to Politico, after a hard day of sightseeing of the region’s holy sites, the group indulged in “a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee (on 18 August 2011) that involved drinking, numerous GOP freshmen lawmakers, top leadership staff—and one nude member of Congress, according to more than a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses.” During this work-packed, fact-finding tour of the Holy Land, according to Politico, Kansas Republican Congressman Kevin Yoder “took off his clothes and jumped into the sea, joining a number of members, their families and GOP staff during a night out in Israel….”

The report went on that “Other participants, including the daughter of another congressman, swam fully clothed while some lawmakers partially disrobed. More than 20 people took part in the late-night dip in the sea….” (Has none of these people ever heard of a swimsuit?)

And in a truly heroic effort at spin-doctoring, per Politico, some of the “lawmakers who ventured into the water said they did so because of the religious significance of the waters. Others said they were simply cooling off after a long day. Several privately admitted that alcohol may have played a role in why some of those present decided to jump in.” Du-uh, no way, dude. Maybe it was the raptures instead?

MSNBC’s acerbic “Morning Joe” Scarborough (himself a former Republican congressman), commenting on this beach party, said on his show “The Republican brand, it’s been really hurt over the past five, 10 years. The conservative brand, still pretty darned good.” He pointed out that the injury to the Republican brand was deepened as lawmakers act out in a “sacred religious site for evangelicals … That reverberates from church to church, from pew to pew, from family to family, from preacher to preacher….They have offended their base.”

The point, of course, is that the Republicans need to have the socially conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist Christian base of their party enthusiastic for the Romney-Ryan ticket. It cannot have them so appalled by the personal behavior of their party’s elected leadership that they edge away towards the exits rather than generate a vigorous turnout at the polls in November.

And Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, the redoubtable chronicler of presidential races, chimed in with a, “Is there criticism from the right—are they denounced by pastors and religious figures on the right? … The president … could come out and denounce this. What will Nancy Pelosi say about it? ALL OF THAT COULD DRIVE THIS INTO THE FALL.” (All caps courtesy of the sources, not Daily Maverick.)

The religiously inspired, skinny-dipping congressman Yoder said in his defence, or whatever, “A year ago, my wife, Brooke, and I joined colleagues for dinner at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. After dinner I followed some members of Congress in a spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea and regrettably I jumped into the water without a swimsuit.” Yoder went on to say, “It is my greatest honour to represent the people of Kansas in Congress and (for) any embarrassment I have caused for my colleagues and constituents, I apologize.” Now Mr Yoder, go write on the blackboard five hundred times, “I will not behave like a teenaged, alcohol-fuelled idiot” and then take out the dustbin, clean the floor and wash the windows. Sources said that Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the senior-most GOP congressman on the trip, was apparently so upset about the antics that he personally rebuked the two and a half dozen lawmakers the morning after all the fun had taken place, rapping them on the knuckles, saying they were distracting from the mission of the trip. 

All countries do such trips for influentials from other nations, and Israel is no exception. In this case, the American Israel Educational Foundation, a group aligned with AIPAC, the uber-prominent pro-Israel advocacy group, organized and sponsored the visit for more than 60 people.  Such trips have become virtual givens for members of Congress, both to visit Christian and Jewish holy sites and to have meetings with officials and others who spend some serious quality time, thumping away about the importance of US support of Israel. 

Because of the potent blend of religion and politics for many US constituencies, when the trip melted down into fraternity party-style drinking and general merrymaking, Cantor became furious over the potential for harm to Congress’ already tattered and frayed reputation—and especially his Republican-led Congress in a presidential election year.

Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for AIEF, put on his best poker face to insist the trip was substantive and rigorous, emailing a statement that read, in part, “As part of the trip, and after of day of meetings including with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, and briefings on Hezbollah and the border with Lebanon, trip participants travelled to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This location made it possible to visit a series of Christian holy sites the next day. After dinner that evening, some in the group went swimming in the biblically significant sea.” Well tried, Dorton. Well tried.

In fact, even without this latest egg on face, the US Congress has already reached new lows in public opinion polls, and this latest scandal can only make things worse. In the past two years alone, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned once it became known he was sending naked pictures of himself to women via the Internet; Republican Congressman Christopher Lee surrendered his office after he was found to be sending topless photos of himself to an online acquaintance; Democratic Congressman David Wu left his job following an what was euphemistically termed an “unwanted” sexual encounter with the daughter of a long-time friend; and Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada gave it up when he tried to cover up an extramarital affair with the wife of an aide.

Then, the other shoe fell. Over the weekend, Todd Akin, the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, managed to explain his opposition to abortion by insisting that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant for some strange biological reason only he understood. The comment gave incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill’s camp increasing hope that she can hang onto her seat and contribute mightily to Democrats’ chances of staying in control of the senate. 

Akin’s campaign has been highlighted by his suggestion that student loans are a form of socialism. He has questioned the value of voting rights laws and now, in an interview that made national headlines, introduced “legitimate rape” to the lexicon. As opposed to the other kind, apparently. 

McCaskill quickly jumped on Akin’s comments, saying, “It is beyond comprehension that someone can be so ignorant about the emotional and physical trauma brought on by rape. The ideas that Todd Akin has expressed about the serious crime of rape and impact on its victims are offensive.”

Later that same evening, with the verbal shrapnel falling all around him in the newest front in was has been termed the Republicans’  “war against women”, and as Republican operatives were openly speculating how they could force him from the ticket, Akin issued a statement in which he said, “it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview. It does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.” 

By Monday, the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney had been put in the position of having to say, “Congressman’s Akin comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong. Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive.” Romney went on to say, “I have an entirely different view. What he said is entirely without merit and he should correct it.” But he didn’t call for Akin to drop out of the race, as Republican Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown has done. 

The net effect of the Israel swimming party, Akin’s comments and the other scandals are all contributing to making Congress’ approval rating reach its all-time low. Barely 19% of Americans polled approved of the job Congress is doing. This ties its previous nadir of nearly 40 years ago and of a brief period earlier this year. The Gallup organization, which issued the poll, explained, “It is difficult to pinpoint precise causes for these extraordinarily negative views, although the continuing poor economy is certainly a major factor. The fact that control of Congress is now divided, with a Republican majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate, may provide an opportunity for Americans of all political persuasions to dislike some aspect of Congress. With Congress divided, however, it is difficult to assess what impact its low ratings will have on the November elections, now less than three months away.”

While this may have baleful effects for some Democratic incumbents as well, as Barack Obama increasingly gears up to run against what his campaign will point to as a “do nothing” Republican-led House of Representatives and its obdurate refusal to go along with Obama’s budget and tax plans, the horrific approval rating for Congress may well contribute to Obama’s eventual support in the election.

By the way, if readers are interested, in the nearly half a century-long history of Gallup polling, the only people or institutions that have been more unpopular than the current Congress are Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Mark Fuhrman, a detective in the OJ Simpson murder trial. Americans were actually more favourably disposed towards BP during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, socialism as a government style, waterboarding, abortion, President Richard Nixon at his very worst, non-believers in Santa Claus, Greece’s prime minister, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Paris Hilton and those big bad banks. Quite a list. DM

Read more:

  • The Page at Time
  • Todd Akin’s rape remark has GOP fretting at Politico
  • Congress approval rating at all-time low at the Huffington Post
  • Exclusive: FBI probed GOP trip with drinking, nudity in Israel at Politico

Photo: Kevin Yoder, congressman from Kansas, and Todd Akin, the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri (REUTERS)


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