Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama both called on Alaska's Ted Stevens to resign from the U.S. Senate Tuesday, a day after his conviction on charges of failing to report more than $250,000 in gifts.
It is "time to put an end to the corruption and influence-peddling" in Washington, said Sen. Obama, who happens to be one of the largest recipients of perfectly legal campaign contributions -- more than $100,000 worth -- from lobbyists and PACs representing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the semi-private mortgage behemoths that he and fellow Democrats protected from reform until they collapsed last month.
But the fact that Democrats including Sen. Obama are not much better than Sen. Stevens -- or simply haven't been caught yet -- are hardly winning campaign slogans. The fact is, the 84-year-old senior senator from Alaska -- still in a close race for re-election despite his disgrace -- is a poster child for why Republicans are in so much electoral trouble this year.
Fourteen years ago, Americans threw out a corrupt Democratic Congress and gave Republican "reformers" under Rep. Newt Gingrich a chance. With a clear mandate to end wasteful pork and back-scratching and trim the federal government back to its constitutionally mandated role, Republicans took a few useful steps as promised -- but quickly grew much too comfortable in the well-padded chairs they'd inherited.
Stevens, 84, was convicted by a federal jury in Washington, D.C., on Monday on all seven counts of failing to report more than $250,000 in home improvements and other gifts from Veco Corp., an Alaska oil-services company, and its founder, Bill Allen. The senator remains free without bail pending a sentencing date later this year.
In a statement after the verdict, Stevens still proclaimed his innocence, vowing to remain in the race and accusing federal prosecutors of "unconscionable" behavior.
In the political real world, Stevens has much to gain by staying in the race and hoping to eke out a win. Democrats count his as the eighth or even the final, ninth Republican seat they need to capture in order to gain a filibuster-proof majority in the upper chamber. Stevens probably hopes his surviving vote would prove an important enough bargaining chip that he might at least be offered a favorable sentencing recommendation by the lame-duck Bush administration in exchange for resigning after the election and allowing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to appoint a Republican successor.
But that -- while unsavory and pathetic -- is beside the point. Although Democrats played major roles in enabling the financial excesses that led to the ongoing mortgage derivative collapse, they're scoring quite well in this election campaign by blaming the whole mess on "Republicans who deregulated banking and handed fat tax breaks to their rich country-club buddies," etc.
The fact that Sen. John McCain, particularly, was rebuffed in several efforts to institute needed reforms on a timely basis is a hard point to get across when voters are holding their noses with the stench of the Ted Stevens conviction front and center.
Republican senators knew what Stevens was up to as the GOP's top porkmeister. But they did nothing to clean their own house, and haven't much of a complaint as voters now prepare to render a larger, political verdict on that smug and callous inaction.
It appears likely Democrats will now get another chance in the Senate's cat-bird seat. They will doubtless commit new abuses of their own, bringing the pendulum swinging back the other way in four years, or even by 2010.
The question is: Will Republicans learn from their mistakes, finally joining mavericks including Ron Paul of Texas, Arizona's Jeff Flake, Nevada's Dean Heller, and -- yes -- John McCain, in embracing meaningful pork-and-bribery reform?
Just how good a dunking will it take?