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By Jay Cost

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On Craig's Change of Heart

I had decided to avoid the Larry Craig story because I found myself appalled - not only by what Craig confessed to doing, but also the way the media covered it. I thought that the story symbolized the impoverished nature of today's political journalism.

But, in the last few days, the story has taken a turn - and there are some interesting insights to tease out of it. Namely, Craig is now considering not resigning:

Just when Republicans thought things could not get much worse for their scandal-stained party, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig leaked word Tuesday night that he is reconsidering his abrupt plan to resign from the Senate in the wake of his arrest in a police sex sting operation.

Top Republican strategists were neither delighted nor amused by the senator's decision to rethink retirement after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct following his arrest in a Minnesota airport men's bathroom.

While I find this surprising, I must say that I am not totally surprised. It makes sense to me that, after a few days to think soberly about his situation, Craig is having a change of mind. I think he's asking himself, "If I stay, what can they really do to me?"

Journalists and pundits usually assume that the political party is a powerful organization with control over members like Craig. This is not really true. In fact, political scientists generally adhere to two theories about today's political party - one theory governs our understanding of the party-in-office, and another theory governs our understanding of the party-in-elections.

The first is known as "conditional party government." The idea is that the party leadership (at least in the House) is powerful because the policy preferences of the members in the caucus are closely aligned. The caucus empowers the leadership to do the caucus will. But this empowerment is limited. Rarely, for instance, do you see the caucus leadership impose punishments on legislators who vote the wrong way. Instead, the caucus leadership exercises power through agenda setting and committee assignments.

The second theory is known as the "party in service." The idea is that, in the contemporary electoral campaign, the party does not exercise power over candidates. Rather, it helps them get elected. This is mostly because candidates - especially incumbents - can acquire the nomination without the blessing of the party leadership, and can raise funds independent of the party leadership. Candidates do not really depend upon the party organization anymore, so the organization has lost the ability to exercise power over them.

How does this relate to Craig? Simply stated, the kind of formal power that the party can exercise over a sitting senator like Craig is pretty minimal. The press painted the picture as if the party was "leaning" on Craig to exit the Senate. However, there is very little leaning the party could actually do beyond threatening to go after his reputation. Case in point: there were reports that the RNC was planning to issue a statement calling on Craig to resign. This is actually a symbol of the RNC's impotence over a guy like Craig. That strategy punishes Craig by attacking his reputation, but it also punishes the RNC to a great degree. After all, the national committee must suffer the ignominy of calling on one of its own to resign for ignominious behavior. Beyond these sorts of Pyrrhic strategies that attack his reputation, the party is left with very little more than taking away his committee assignments and working to defeat him in next year's primary. But, of course, his defeat is a foregone conclusion, regardless of what the party does.

By and large, the party lacks the formal power to force a sitting member of Congress to exit the chamber. Its power is really limited to attacking his reputation - at a cost to itself. And this is why I am less-than-shocked that Craig is thinking about changing his mind. He probably recognizes that, should he stay, there is very little his fellow partisans can do to him other than sully his reputation. Because his reputation is so sullied already, this is not much of a punishment. In fact, from Craig's perspective, his best bet might be to stay in the chamber so that, should he win an appeal, he might use his status as a sitting senator to get more attention paid to his legal victory, and therefore get his good name restored much more fully.

-Jay Cost