Check-Bouncing Then, Mark Foley Now?
Posted by Michael Signer
I've been sitting here for an un-blog-like amount of time (well over 20 minutes) trying to figure out what to write on foreign affairs and having no luck -- not because there isn't a lot going on, whether in Iraq or with the revelations that Dr. Strangelove is again running American foreign policy. But, rather, my writer's block is coming from the strange, dizzying, Foley feeling a lot of political watchers are experiencing right now. The oxygen has literally been sucked out of the blogosphere. Man, this story has legs.
As any PS 101 student knows, it's extremely hard to unseat incumbents. The only thing that will do it, en masse, is a scandal that emotionally crystallizes for voters, in a very generic and immediate way, a sense of outrage that can be applied to any old incumbent, with electoral effects.
I've been trying to do some research on the most analogous event in recent history, which was the check-bouncing scandal that engulfed Congress from 1990 to 1992.
The scandal had a longer lead time than now. It began in 1990, when seven freshman Representatives (including John Boehner) began an investigation into the House bank, which routinely allowed Members to overcharge their accounts. The scandal built over the next two years, as it became clear that 300 Members (and Cabinet secretaries, including Dick Cheney) had overcharged their accounts.
It really gathered steam in the early months of 1992, as 53 Congressmen retired rather than face a challenger. In the end, as astonishing 110 new Members came to Congress. While not all of these could be attributed to the check-bouncing scandal, a lot of them could.
I once met a media consultant who ran a campaign against a Republican incumbent on the basis of check-bouncing. The ads said, "Bounce Chet Atkins out of Congress" and featured a clever graphic of Atkins actually bouncing out of Congress. They were effective, and Atkins lost.
I'm really wondering whether you could see the same thing this fall. Then, as now, a single scandal encapsulates, for the American mind, so much of what it hates about politics -- the arrogance, the decadence, the insularity of Congress. Check out this paragraph from a 1991 Time article on the check-bouncing scandal:
Members of Congress seemed in some cases to be genuinely surprised at the rage the revelations unleashed. Why is everyone interested in this, they wondered, and not my views on the coup in Haiti? All of which served to confirm the impression of a body of lawmakers out of touch with the lives of their constituents and in the habit of placing themselves above the law. This is the Congress, after all, that defends affirmative action and passes laws banning racial discrimination in hiring but then exempts itself from the same guidelines. It was impossible to get all the names of the check bouncers last week because Congress is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act.Which is, of course, utterly beside the point. All the posturing just ignored the symbolism. Members of Congress seemed in some cases to be genuinely surprised at the rage the revelations unleashed. Why is everyone interested in this, they wondered, and not my views on the coup in Haiti? All of which served to confirm the impression of a body of lawmakers out of touch with the lives of their constituents and in the habit of placing themselves above the law.
The precise gravamen is distinguishable, I suppose -- financial corruption then, sexual corruption (and a cover-up) now. But the sense of fast, hot outrage is the same.
Incumbents may reap a whirlwind this November. Maybe that's why it's dizzying in the blogosphere -- not the lack of oxygen.