There are two battles every election year. The first is for votes; the second almost as crucial is over the interpretation of those votes. Many a past election has been misinterpreted in the days following recall the "angry white male" election and the "swift boat" election. Today, we are invited to conclude that the 2006 election was a referendum on the Iraq War and the Bush presidency. Maybe. But for the sake of argument, let's consider the possibility that Iraq did not determine this election at all.
The war in Iraq was cited as an "extremely," "very" or "somewhat" important factor in the votes of 89 percent of the electorate according to exit polls. But the war on terror was cited by 92 percent of voters as important to their votes. These nearly cancel each other out, as those who cited Iraq as crucial tended to vote Democrat and those who cited terror tended to vote Republican.
Fifty-seven percent of voters said they either "strongly" or "somewhat" disapprove of the job George W. Bush is doing as president, but more (61 percent) said they disapproved of Congress. Why Congress? Other polling, conducted before Election Day, found that 75 percent of voters were concerned about political corruption.
In days before the Foley scandal erupted, support for Republican candidates was inching up. On Sept. 15, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed support for Republican and Democratic House candidates tied at 48/48. Foley resigned on Sept. 29. By Oct. 8, 59 percent of voters were leaning Democrat. Republican numbers never recovered after that.
Foley was merely the proverbial straw breaking the camel's back, of course. Corruption has been oozing and suppurating from Capitol Hill for several years. Recall that Republicans had changed their rules to permit a member of the leadership to continue to serve following an indictment. They changed it back later, but too late to undo the damage it had done to their reputations.
Rep. Tom DeLay was forced to resign when he was indicted (justly or not) and then left office under a cloud. Rep. Duke Cunningham was indicted and convicted not for borderline campaign finance finagling, but for out-and-out graft. Jack Abramoff and his buddies (which included some members of Congress like former Rep. Bob Ney and Sen. Conrad Burns, along with many movers and shakers in Republican circles) were found guilty of bilking Indian tribes and other low deceits. Abramoff's black trench coat and black hat became the symbol of Republican control.
There was one prominent Democrat caught with his fist in the till, William Jefferson (of frozen bucks fame), but instead of offering him up as evidence that corruption is bipartisan, the Republican leadership threw a protective arm over Jefferson's shoulder, indignantly denouncing the FBI for searching his office. In so doing, they made his scandal their own.
When Foley, a champion of protecting kids from Internet porn, was revealed as an instant-messaging degenerate, and it was bruited that members of the leadership had known of his proclivities and remained silent, the corruption needle headed into red territory. Days later, we learned that Rep. Curt Weldon was under investigation by the FBI, and the snowball picked up speed.
Many reasons have been adduced for the "Republican revolution" of 1994 and the tectonic shift that year may have had several antecedents. But without doubt among the most potent issues was corruption. Certainly Newt Gingrich, who had successfully upended House Speaker Jim Wright on those grounds, was aware of its power.
Gingrich offered a Contract with America, but he also harped on Congress's failure to abide by the laws it passed for others (including employment and Civil Rights laws), its elaborate perks and the House banking scandal. Thanks to a cozy system designed by the lawmakers for the lawmakers, members of Congress were engaged in massive check kiting. No fewer than 77 members either resigned or failed to seek re-election due to the banking scandal, and five were convicted of crimes. At the same time, voters learned of the House post office scandal, which resulted in the resignation and criminal conviction of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. In 1994, the voters threw the Democrats out.
This year, Republicans had many reasons to be lukewarm about their representatives. Spending has been obscene. Earmarks are a disgrace. The reforming zeal the class of '94 arrived with has long since melted into complacency. Some conservative voters may have chosen to sit this one out. But the overriding reason for the Democrats' sweep just as it was for the Republicans 12 years ago was corruption.