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Craig’s options, in contrarian

Larry Craig

Larry Craig

Aconsensus seems to have set in on Idaho Senator Larry Craig, three days after his arrest and guilty plea in Minneapolis went public. There’s a pretty broad view now: Craig should resign, soon, and the idea of actually running for term – a prospect Craig himself maintained at his Tuesday press conference – should be completely off the table.

This isn’t just the four Idaho newspapers that have (so far) called for his resignation, or the three (thus far) Republican members of Congress or the conservative activists who have done likewise. It’s also public measurement, the 55% of Idahoans in a Survey USA who turned thumbs down, and the overwhelming majorities in online (self-selected, but now days-old) polls at the Spokane and Lewiston newspaper sites, calling for immediate resignation. And (to be clear), we do think it likely that the senator will resign before long. We also think the cases laid out in each of the newspaper editorials are solidly argued.

Does that mean Craig’s options are foreclosed, that he cannot do other than resign and leave politics – or that there’s no argument in favor of doing otherwise?

No. Maybe only as an exercise in contrarianism, but also in recognition that the actions of any single person aren’t entirely predictable, let’s consider the alternative options, and the case for them.

We start by noting this: The choice is his.

Senators cannot be recalled or impeached. They can be expelled, by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. This is a rare event – the clubbiness of the Senate makes it close to unheard of. No senator has been expelled since 1862, when the cause was that they backed the Confederacy rather than the Union. Proceedings have begun several times since then, and in some cases might resulted in expelling except that the senators involved tended to resign prior to a vote. The most recent of these concerned a Northwesterner, Oregon’s Robert Packwood, in 1995. Before that, you go back to 1982, then to 1942 – it doesn’t happen a lot. The current ethics activity notwithstanding, we strongly doubt that it would happen in Craig’s case; in nearly all of the earlier cases in the last century, there was a far stronger allegation of abuse of office or official corruption than here.

Plus, less than a year and a half of Craig’s term remains. Proceedings could take months. Could Craig tough it out?

Consider the Packwood case (which Craig knows well, since he was involved in negotiating Packwood’s departure). The Oregon senator had been asked about sexual harassment charges in October 1992, just before his re-election, and the story exploded publicly three weeks after that election. The case never entirely died down, but not until May 1995 did the Senate Ethics Committee deliver its report, and Packwood finally resigned in September of that year – nearly three years after the charges went public. (He did consider, then rejected, resigning in late 1993.) Craig’s term lasts less than half that time span.

Here’s a description of that time from the 1996 Almanac of American Politics: “For a time, things appeared to turn up for him. . . . By spring 1994, he could make appearances in Oregon without jeering crowds. His fellow Republicans resisted moves to oust him. When Republicans won a Senate majority in November, Packwood was suddenly Finance Committee chairman again.” Until mid-1995, he again became as busy a senator as he had been before.

Within the insular world of the Senate, Craig still retains his vote, one of 100, and all the senatorial prerogatives (including such things as holds, which could be used to make colleagues’ lives pleasant or miserable); even at worst, even without committee assignments, there’s some clout and leverage available. And over the course of weeks or months, if he made clear he was staying put, he might be able to get those committee assignments back. His absence from committees affords, for now, one less Republican and conservative vote.

Over time, he could speak out on various issues, offer policy proposals, and diffuse the current one-dimensional depiction of who Larry Craig is. And that could be a real consideration. Think about it: If he leaves now, he will be known overwhelmingly and forever (despite his friends’ ministrations) not for 27 years of work in Congress but as that dirty old senator who went trolling bathrooms for gay sex: Known forever as a bad joke. If he quits, that image will be locked in, nearly unchangeable. If he stays, there’s a possibility of at least amending or softening it, a chance that day in Minneapolis will not completely overwhelm his years in Washington and Idaho.

How effective would he be? Less, unquestionably, than he has been. But Packwood probably could argue that, after some weeks (and months) of initial furor, he maintained some effectiveness in the Senate regardless, for a couple of years.

Okay. So there’s some case for Craig staying on. Is there any case at all for – as he held out the possibility on Tuesday – running for re-election? (Numbers favoring running again are, in the Spokane and Lewiston on-line polls, far below even the small minority favoring him serving out the term.)


One of the key arguments against running would involve the potential damage he might do to the Republican Party. His filing would instantly draw at least one significant primary opponent and maybe more, and it easily could turn into a massive squall. That scenario constitutes the best scenario we can come up with for a win by Democrat Larry LaRocco – he might favored to win under those conditions (coupled with running in a strong Democratic year).

But then, why should any of that bother Craig? His traditional political allies have been the first to throw him under the train. Their loyalty to him has been almost nonexistent; why should he not reciprocate?

It is true that his odds of re-election would be slim. But what would he have to lose?

He might have something to gain.

Craig has, for 27 years, been a tightly disciplined political figure, carefully measuring what he should and shouldn’t say, adhering to protocol and taking care not to offend. (When he told the Idaho Statesman in an interview that as a politician he and his campaigns had never gone on the attack against opponents other than on policy issues, he was – so far as we can recall – telling the truth.) Suppose you were Larry Craig, with the accumulation of three decades of stuff you’d like to say but never could? Remember the musician George Harrison of the Beatles, whose output was limited in the context of the group, but burst out with a surprisingly fine and expansive album, and other works, afterward? For Craig, a bright and highly articulate man, this would be a one and only opportunity, a rare chance few people ever get, after all these many years in and around public office, to fully and completely say exactly what’s on his mind. Political unknowns do it all the time, but hardly anyone pays attention. Craig could get all the attention he wanted, for anything he wanted to convey.

And in the process dramatically change the terms of what Larry Craig is all about.


Do we think he’ll do that? No; based on the whole of his life history, it seems a reach.

But then, he’s never resigned from office before, or left politics, either.

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