One of the most compelling figures in the Batman comic books is Two-Face, a character who was introduced in the 1940s who has two sides to his face. One side appears a handsome, well groomed crime fighting attorney who stands for good and justice, and on the other side is a horribly disfigured and frightening monster. Two-Face decides whether he will do good or evil based on the flip of a coin.
Senator John McCain faces a two-face problem in this campaign for the presidency. The indictment of Senator Ted Stevens just added to this problem. Stevens, the senior senator from Alaska, was indicted for failing to disclose substantial gifts from powerful corporate interests in his state.
McCain has been struggling to tap into the "good" face of the conservative tradition. He desperately wants to remind disenchanted conservatives of the legacy of individuals such as Senator Barry Goldwater, President Ronald Reagan, and Speaker Newt Gingrich. These men advocated and promoted a robust set of ideas for the GOP and were committed to challenging liberal Democrats by offering Americans a contrasting world view. Whether one liked or hated them, these Republicans built a conservative movement around arguments about taking an aggressive stand against totalitarianism, the superiority of private markets over government, and the centrality of individual liberty.
Then there is the other side to the face of conservatism, the one whose lineage includes President Richard Nixon and, most recently, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay. This is a very different image of the Republican Party, one that has caused almost as much anger with conservatives as with liberals.
This side of the Republican face symbolizes a conservatism that has become corrupt with power. The Nixon-DeLay side didn't really oppose big government, but rather wanted to control government, expand it, and use it for their own political purposes and self interest. The uglier side of conservatism has produced a cottage industry of books by the right lamenting the decline of their movement.
John McCain has been struggling to keep voters focused on the first side of the conservative face. Indeed, he is counting on this, given that a central part of his own story is that he spent much of his Senate career fighting against people like Senator Stevens and arguing that reforming government was as central to conservatism as tax cuts or a hawkish foreign policy. Until we free government of corruption, McCain has argued, the special interests will never allow for true change in Washington.
Yet McCain has found it almost impossible to get rid of the other side of the conservative face. His campaign operates under the shadow of the 2006 elections, which were as much about Republican corruption as Iraq, the wrongdoing of Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Randy Cunningham, Mark Foley, and others. During his campaign, McCain's own ties to powerful lobbyists and their role in his campaign have followed him on the campaign trail and raised questions about the authenticity of his arguments about reform.
And here comes the indictment of Senator Stevens, who brings with him the ghosts of 2006 and reminds voters -- moderates as well as staunch conservatives -- that the Republicans have been involved in the same kind of political corruption they once derided Democrats for having accepted. The Stevens indictment, according to founding conservative Richard Viguerie, is "just a symptom of the corruption that has infected Republicans and Democrats alike...."
Democrats need to be careful since their houses are not so clean either. Even Barack Obama, who champions change and reform, faces his own ongoing questions about his relationship to the Chicago fundraiser Tony Rezko.
But right now political corruption is a problem that is much more significant for Republicans than Democrats. Republicans held power in Congress for a long period of time and most of the major scandals in the past three years have centered on the GOP. Just this morning, the House Judiciary Committee voted, along party lines, to cite Karl Rove, the former top aide to President Bush, for contempt of Congress.
The cost of these individual scandals to the party, and the conservative movement, becomes clearer every day as McCain finds it difficult to convince voters that behind every promise for change and reform does not lurk an uglier side to the Republican face.
Julian E. Zelizer is Professor of History and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He is the co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Harvard University Press) and author of On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000 (Cambridge University Press).
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