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Craig in review 1: Roots of panic

On Wednesday, Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s disorderly conduct case will return to a Minnesota courtroom; there, he is attempting to withdraw his plea of guilty, and service of his sentence, on the charge. Within a few days after that, the Northwest’s senior senator (and its second most senior member of Congress) may – or may not – resign from the Senate. This the first of four essays considering the case, its causes and its effects.

Larry Craig

Larry Craig

It would be an early, and easy, response on the part of many Idahoans that it’s just an oddity, a fluke, that the now-infamous Larry Craig came from Idaho. His arrest happened a thousand miles away. He could have come from anywhere, right? Idaho itself had nothing to do with it, you dig – it was just the state that happened to get caught up in something that happened far away . . .

Or not. Maybe it’s no coincidence that al this happened of and to a guy from Idaho – maybe there’s reason it happened the way it did, and that Idaho may have something to do with it. Maybe politics, Idaho politics, had something to do with it. Maybe there’s something here beyond the scandal as such that a Northwest blog like this really ought to address.

Our recollections of Larry Craig go back to the Idaho State Senate in the 70s, a time when the two major political parties were a lot more similar than they are today, when the philosophical lines blurred, when Democrats on the right and Republicans on the left often crossed over in their voting, when a number of senators around the chamber were considered unpredictable votes, near-free agents, willing to come up with their own ideas and operate accordingly. Caucus loyalty was there, but less enforced than today. It was a different time.

Craig was one of the mavericks. The reporters and lobbyists knew him as an interesting thinker, no routine spouter of caucus rhetoric but someone who worked out his own positions. (We’ve heard a story, unconfirmed but from an excellent source, about a day back in the 70s when Idaho’s top labor organizer visited Craig to deliver a substantial campaign contribution – which Craig, aware the political realities involved, declined to accept.) He also articulated them well – one of the youngest senators, he was one of the best speakers in the chamber, his voice sounding eerily at times like that of the similarly-skilled Democratic Senator Frank Church. Craig’s Republican credentials were in order, but his independent streak surely played into his two losses for leadership position, for majority leader, both times to a senator elected the same year (1974) he was, and was much more a strict conservative caucus loyalist: Jim Risch (who may become the next senator from Idaho). There were Statehouse rumors back then that Craig might be gay, most people around the building heard the talk, but nothing concrete was developed and nothing much was ever made of it.

Then Craig changed.

In 1980 he filed for the U.S. House, for the seat being vacated by Republican Steve Symms, who would go on to beat Church in the state’s high-profile contest that year. Symms was by background a libertarian in philosophy, but over the years he became a Republican caucus conservative, rarely breaking with Republican party leaders, and very much in line with the developing presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan. Upon announcing for the House, Craig served immediate notice – startling many of those who had watched him up to then – that he would follow directly in Symms’ steps.

And he did. His big issue became, and would for many years remain, a balanced federal budget (on which subject he championed a constitutional amendment), and he lined up hard and fast with the resource industries that supported Reagan and the Sagebrush Rebellion. The positioning he assumed then has defined him, as a matter of political philosophy, voting patterns and legislation, in unwavering fashion, ever since.

A matter of conscience or political convenience? Only Craig truly knows.

We can fairly say, though, that Craig profited politically from it.

He entered that 1980 Republican primary as an underdog, against former Attorney General Wayne Kidwell. Kidwell’s campaign was poor (as he has since acknowledged), but Craig was able to ride, in primary and general elections that year, along the political grooves by then deeply worn by Symms and his predecessor, James McClure: A base of supporters, contributors and voters which constituted a reliable and almost unshakable working majority, first in the district and later (as he ran for the Senate) statewide. Craig became one of the conservative Republican crew, easily defined and understood by conservative Idaho voters. Mavericks have lots of ‘splainin’ to do to voters; from 1980 on, Craig never had much to worry about that. Less government, lower taxes, keep government off your backs, oppose gun control and support Reagan: What else did anyone need to know? And particularly as Idaho Republicans hit their sweeping stride in the mid-90s, Craig’s political armor became exceedingly difficult to crack. He never developed the kind of intensely likable persona some politicians (such as Idaho’s current governor, C.L “Butch” Otter) have. But he stuck with those who brought him along, and they stuck with him.

Craig has not been an inactive or inconsequential senator, but you’ll have to search hard to find anything in his federal record that runs counter to the terms under which he was elected in 1980 or since: The consistency has been solid. Only with true rarity (apart from the normal constituent defenses of Idaho interests) has he bolted from the majority Republican position, or from Republican presidential administrations. (The most striking example that comes to mind is Craig’s criticism of, and efforts to reform, the Patriot Act; we can’t think of another nearly as significant. Craig’s role on the immigration issue, which surely is highly contentious, doesn’t count; the Republican Party is split on it, and Craig has largely lined up with the current Republican president.)

As political careers go, Craig’s has been a smooth ride. He has not been an electoral underdog since that 1980 primary. He has never had a truly close call since, or even a really competitive election since 1982 (when he was held to 54% by Democrat Larry LaRocco, who – that’s right – is running again for the Senate in Idaho now). His last re-election, in 2002, was a landslide. Nor were any of these races, aside from closeness, really contentious. Most were cool matters, aloof with discussions of philosophy and the like. When Craig remarked, as he did in an interview last May with the Idaho Statesman, that he’s never gone harshly negative on an opponent, he is right. It’s also true that none of his challengers really whaled hard on him. Over his decades in Washington, he saw at close range plenty of scandal and controversy, but little of it ever touched him.

Once, it came close.

In 1982, scandal erupted in the U.S House on reports that several male pages, high school students, had been sexually propositioned by congressmen. Craig wasn’t, and never has been, among the congressmen accused; but unlike other members of Congress, he reacted publicly by declaring that he wasn’t guilty. That raised immediate eyebrows. As a matter of politics, it was a foolish move: Even if he had nothing to do with the page scandal, it suggested that Craig might be hiding something. Craig himself acknowledged later that he’s made a mistake. Why had he, alone among the 435 members of the U.S. House, made that mistake? He had panicked. Crisis had arisen and, in the pressure of the moment, he had lost the ability to deal with it rationally.

Coping with crisis – of various sorts – seems to be mostly a learned ability, developed through experience. A soldier in an ongoing battle situation doubtless deals with action under fire better the fourth or fifth time than on the first or second. A politician under fire, whether because of an issue or because of party identification or something else, develops seasoning, a thicker skin, and greater coolness under fire.

In the political world of Idaho, Larry Craig rarely experienced any serious career-threatening fire. For a quarter-century after that 1982 page incident, Craig was of the right party and philosophy and voting pattern to keep him where he wanted to be. There was no fire from Idaho: He had easily ascended the ranks, and the steps needed to defend his place were no more than ministerial. Would a Democrat from Idaho have responded as Craig did? Probably not. Or a Republican, we suspect, from Washington or Oregon – places where Republicans have to bear in mind that the opposition is real and serious and will strike hard on sensing weakness.

Some of the origins of the Larry Craig story, as we’ve known it for the last month, do seem political.

Not all. Of course not all – his personal life, whatever the full story there may be, obvious mattered a great deal in how the airport incident and its aftermath have played out. Because we suspect, strongly, that had Craig handled the situation differently from the moment of his arrest, his political positioning now might be stronger than it is.

If Larry Craig had happened to come to the Senate from another state, maybe this thing would have played out otherwise.

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