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Craig Watch: Day 10/?

Larry Craig

Larry Craig

The state of play – in this game most people thought had ended Saturday morning – over Senator Larry Craig is, if anything, intensifying. It is probably a lesser deal now for the talk show comics, but it has become more intriguing – by orders of magnitude – as a matter of politics.

What handicaps any evaluation is that we don’t yet know what the end game for the central player – Craig himself – is supposed to look like; we can only guess. (Kevin Richert of the Idaho Statesman made that point in his blog today.) But we can speculate that it is evolving. And his role is crucial. Having lawyered up, and having an objective that remains obscure, he is driving this thing now, just as – a week ago – he was being bashed into the ground, in the couple of days after the Roll Call report about his men’s room arrest and guilty plea in Minneapolis.

Last Tuesday, when he delivered his first (widely panned) defiant press conference, Craig was being buried under; he was entirely on defense, and the Alamo had been breached. He seemed and probably was at that point still in a mode somewhere between panic and shock, and probably thought that his friends and allies would help him through this. And then they did not – they joined the attacking the forces, led the attacking the forces.

Somewhere around last Wednesday or maybe Thursday, Craig began to come around and think strategically. And since then he has reversed position with his assailants in the Senate Republican caucus – he is consciously executing an extensive and complex strategic plan, while his one-time allies are being thrown back into confusion and panic mode. You get the sense, in sifting through the quotes from Republicans in Washington, that he can’t be doing this. A pertinent quote following today’s Republican Senate Policy Committee (which Craig once chaired), from an unnamed senator: “If he has the [courage] to fight this, then the least he could do is come here and feel the heat we’re feeling.” As an expression of mood, that one seems to tell it all.

True: Craig may resign at any point, including September 30; and we don’t need to re-recite here why that may happen. You could even call it probable. But there are alternatives, and we don’t really know right now toward which of them Craig is headed.

Let’s review the sequence, and see what that suggests.

As noted, as of last Tuesday Craig probably had the sense that he would get help from most of his party; by mid-Wednesday, he had to have realized what direction that was taking. He probably also began to realize that the whole question of his personal life was a gone issue; as he said at one point, he couldn’t control what people chose to believe. He may have decided to let that go (for evidence of that, consider the topics he didn’t address at all in his Saturday press conference), and focus instead on other goals. What those are exactly, remain unclear.

Whatever they were, he decided he needed big guns to achieve them. He brought on board a top-rank disaster management crew, fully lawyering up in the process. (A question not much asked yet, though some people have begun to: These hired guns are powerfully expensive. How is Craig, not a wealthy man, paying for it? Prospective book deals, maybe?) He entered into discussions inside the outer rings of the Senate Republican caucus (with Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, we know now, by Friday at least, and we strongly suspect one or more others as well). The heat was so intense that a means had to be found to divert it, at least for enough days to go on the offensive. Thus the Saturday press conference which sounded at first like a simple and apparently final resignation announcement; in hindsight, it clearly was diversionary. We were gotten to take our eyes off Craig for a couple of days, thinking the deal was done . . .

Then Craig changed the terms. Instead of a resignation on September 30 (he did not qualify that plan last Saturday), he now said he would resign only if he could not get exoneration by the end of the month. Those terms were quickly seized on in Boise and Washington – there’s no way he can get that done in less than a month, goes the common thread – but what a lot of people missed was that if Craig can change the terms of his resignation once, he can do it again. Our bet is that, within days, those terms will change again.

Craig, you see, holds some cards here, high cards, the presence of which he may have realized early on and that his high-priced counsel undoubtedly did.

One is the near-desperation with which most of Republican Washington wants him gone, yesterday, with the name of Larry Craig scoured from the face of the earth. But Craig’s departure, as we have pointed out before, is reliant on him. Senators can be forced out only by being expelled, which isn’t going to happen. (The majority Democrats wouldn’t go for it, even if all the Republicans did, and some probably wouldn’t.) That’s leverage of a serious nature. Craig could continue to hold down that Senate seat for the next 16 months and never set foot in Washington, or Idaho for that matter – if he chose. But every day he remains, he’s a sore spot for the Republicans, a political liability that grows day by day.

Coming days are especially critical. Next week is when the big Bush Administration Iraq testimony is scheduled before Congress, and the administration’s hope clearly is that all eyes will be on it. The last thing they, or their allies in Congress, want, is the Larry Craig story still on the stage, rattling its chains.

There is more. Craig retains some Senate prerogatives which could do damage to some other legislators and their efforts. But the possibility that must strike serious fear into the heart of the caucus is the damage Craig could do if he wanted to play real hardball. The distinction Republican leaders have drawn between Craig and the scandal cases of some other senators is that Craig was convicted of a crime, albeit just a misdemeanor. That was about the only distinction available (a weak piece of sophistry) but also dangerous. One of Craig’s attorneys, speaking on television today, causually noted that other members of the Senate have been convicted of misdemeanors without having to resign. Consider that easy comment a fierce shot back: Craig has been in the Senate almost 17 years, plenty long enough to know all about the dark side of the members there. If he decided to begin unearthing secrets – well, that’s not a place the Republican caucus wants to even think about.

You think Craig would never play hardball with his fellow Republicans? Then maybe you missed the back-and-forth today when Craig’s attorneys asked the Senate Ethics Committee to dismiss its investigation of him; the committee responded that it was moving ahead with the inquiry as long as he was a senator; and Craig responded that he was gearing up to fight back, big time. This saga is by no means over.

So what exactly does Craig want? What does he hope to achieve at this point? That’s what’s hard to say – we’d be off into the realm of guesswork. Maybe he does intent to resign, but he wants to do it on less humiliating terms, and has conditions which he wants met. Maybe positioning himself so he could stay in the Senate, but as a true freelancer, cut free from conventional loyalties. Maybe something else.

Maybe tomorrow will give us a few more clues.

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