Fineman: The Craig Effect in 2008

George Soros, the billionaire currency speculator, thinks he can save America by spending his pocket change to elect Democrats. OK, George, here's an idea: pay Sen. Larry Craig's legal bills. While you're at it, bankroll one of the "independent spending" efforts (you have done it before) to tell the whole sad Craig story, and more, to Republican evangelical voters.

I wasn't ready to conclude that 2008 is going to be a Democratic year, but the metastasizing Craig saga is tempting me to abandon my reporter's caution. Sometimes in American politics, you can't make the stuff up: a Republican conservative stalwart, sworn enemy of gay rights, nabbed in a men's room stall in the very city in which the GOP plans to hold its presidential convention!

If the Democrats handle this right—and of course there is no assurance that they will—they could weaken the GOP's "values voter" base just enough to win the White House. Yes, even Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, lugging the baggage of her husband's Oval Office history, could benefit.

I have to laugh at some of my brethren who claim that evangelical and born-again voters weren't the pivotal factor in the 2004 election. Take another look at the exit polls. They were 23 percent of the electorate—and they voted by a 78-21 percent margin for President Bush over Sen. John Kerry. The top issue in the campaign, according to the polls, wasn't Iraq; it was "moral values." Those identifying values as their most important issue voted 80-20 for Bush.

No, the Democrats aren't going to reverse those numbers; born-agains aren't suddenly going to be rebaptized as Democrats. And Lord knows the Democrats have their own burdens, including cold cash in a congressman's freezer. But presidential elections are won at the margins, and the Craig story could be woven into a larger narrative of sin and sleaze that could keep values voters away from the polls altogether—which, in closely contested states such as Iowa, could be enough to cement a Democratic victory.

Evangelicals always have been, and many remain, ambivalent about politics. Bush and Karl Rove built the modern GOP on the growing megachurches of the suburbs. Having spent a lot of time in them, I can tell you that not everyone there is happy to have seen their places of worship turned into 21st-century Tammany Halls. But they accepted it when Bush, himself a born-again, vowed to bring a new, cleansing spirit of rectitude, honor and family values to Washington after the Clinton years.

It didn't happen; just the opposite, in fact. Assemble your own list of malefactors and classless Republican characters. Mine would include: Duke Cunningham, Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney, Tom DeLay, Mark Foley, Steven Griles and Scooter Libby. Aides to Rep. John Doolittle of California have just been subpoenaed. The Feds are checking into Abramoff's business relationship with Doolittle's wife.

The "so what" here is that Bush and the GOP promised a new, more godly spirit in D.C., and they instead rendered God unto Caesar. The way to make that point with evangelicals is with fellow evangelicals—and more in sorrow than in anger. Of what use were the Republican promises? It did not show, one might argue, in their behavior once they assumed earthly power in the nation's capital.

That's a message made to be delivered by an "independent expenditure" committee. Just ask John Kerry.

Even without Soros spending a dime, however, the Democrats already are getting help in keeping the story alive—from Craig himself. It turns out that he never intended to disappear himself quietly and quickly after the news broke that he had pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge in Minneapolis, after an encounter with an undercover cop policing sexual solicitation in an airport men's room.

I just talked to one of Craig's attorneys, Stan Brand, who confirmed that Craig called him to enlist his services last Friday—the day before the senator held a press conference in Boise to announce that he "intends to" resign on Sept. 30. And the day before that, Craig had called Billy Martin, one of the nation's leading criminal-defense attorneys (recent client: Michael Vick) to sign him up, too.

How far Craig will take this isn't clear, though the Democrats should hope that he fights all the way to the Supreme Court. At the time Craig called Brand, GOP leaders had filed charges against Craig with the Senate Ethics Committee. The Senate leaders hoped that doing so would convince Craig to quit, rather than face the prospect of a humiliating inquiry by the committee.

But Brand gave Craig reason to hope—and to at least consider calling the bluff of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP's icy Senate chief. As Brand explained to Craig—and as Brand has now explained to the world—the U.S. Senate has never even considered an ethics charge against a member convicted of a "personal conduct misdemeanor," which is what Craig pleaded to rather than face a trial. "There is absolutely no precedent in the entire history of the Senate," said Brand, who is considered the dean of Washington "ethics" attorneys (no jokes, please).

Another bit of good news for Democrats: the effort to oust Craig is as unseemly as the behavior of which he stood accused by the Minneapolis police. The moment news of his arrest and guilty plea broke, the GOP establishment went almost literally crazy, as presidential candidates fell all over each other to denounce him and distance themselves from a reliable conservative who had been in Congress for a quarter of a century. Mitt Romney was the first to do so, of course (Craig was active in Romney's presidential campaign), followed quickly—and, to me, surprisingly—by Sen. John McCain, who usually resists such stampedes. The Republican National Committee and its campaign arm said that it would not give Craig, who is up for re-election next year, a nickel.

Craig is being encouraged to fight the ethics charges, and to try to rescind his guilty plea in Minneapolis, by none other than Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Why? Well, it could just be that Specter finds the injustice of it all more than he can bear. A more likely explanation is that Specter has long since grown tired of being pushed around by the evangelical wing of his own party. The best way to give them heartburn is come to the aid of one of their own.

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