If I fold up my tent and leave, then where does that leave us? If the Democrats sweep, then we'd have no ability to fight back and get our message out
Every revolution begins with the power of an idea and ends when the only idea left is power.
The epitaph for the movement that started when Newt Gingrich and his forces rose from the back bench of the House chamber in 1994 may well have been written last week.
On conservative commentator Laura Ingraham's show, the longest-serving Republican House speaker in history explained why he would not resign despite a sex scandal that has produced a hail of questions about his failure to stop one of his members from cyberstalking teenage congressional pages.
"If I fold up my tent and leave," Dennis Hastert told her, "then where does that leave us? If the Democrats sweep, then we'd have no ability to fight back and get our message out."
That may have been the most damning admission yet in the unfolding scandal surrounding Florida Congressman Mark Foley: Holding on to power has become not just the means but also the end for the onetime reformers who unseated the calcified Democratic majority that had ruled the House for 40 years.
But after controlling both houses of Congress for most of President Bush's six years in office, the GOP has a governing record that has dismayed those who fantasized about what Newt Gingrich and his band of rebels might accomplish.
To win votes back home, lawmakers in session have been spending like sailors on leave, producing the biggest budget deficits in history. The party's approach to national security has taken the country into a war that most Americans now believe was a mistake and that the government's own intelligence experts say has shaped "a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives."
The current crisis arrived with a sex scandal that has muddied one of the GOP's few remaining patches of moral high ground -- their defense of family values and personal accountability.
Though Hastert and other Republican leaders say they heard last fall about the "over-friendly" approaches of a not-so-secretly gay congressman to a 16-year-old former page, they insist they never imagined anything like the more graphic instant messages that subsequently came to light.
But shouldn't they have gotten chills at learning that a 52-year-old man had sent a teenager a creepy e-mail asking for a "pic of you"? Certainly, the page understood what the emails meant, which is why he forwarded it in August 2005 to the office of Louisiana Congressman Rodney Alexander, who had sponsored him for the page program.
"This freaked me out," the teenager wrote. "Sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick."
The House response -- John Shimkus, the Illinois congressman who oversees the page program, appears to have done nothing more than give Foley a private warning; he wasn't even stripped of his co-chairmanship of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children -- suggests that Republican leaders were motivated more by fear of electoral fallout than by concern for the young pages in their care.
And if they were worried the revelation would hurt their chances of holding onto the House, they turned out to be right. In the latest TIME poll, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they were aware of the scandal, and two-thirds of them were convinced that Republican leaders had tried to cover it up.
Among the registered voters who were polled, 54 percent said they would be more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress, compared with 39 percent who favored the Republican.
Hastert's job seems secure for the moment, barring any big new revelations, in part because the House Speaker is not merely a party leader but a role established under the Constitution. It would be difficult to replace him without summoning Congress back into town from the campaign trail. Nor would an ugly fight over who would succeed him be good for the party's prospects in November.
Meanwhile, GOP leaders are so desperate to find someone else to blame that they have been reduced -- with no indication that they see the irony -- to blaming a vast left-wing conspiracy.
"The people who want to see this thing blow up," Hastert told the Chicago Tribune, "are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros," the liberal financier who has become a bogeyman of the right. Hastert went on to suggest, without producing any proof, that the revelation was the work of Bill Clinton's operatives.
For full story, see TIME.