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Massa’s Cancer

Much of the political focus of the Eric Massa resignation has centered on whether, how and to what degree the former congressman was bullied by the White House or his colleagues in Congress to vote for healthcare reform or other measures. With his ambiguous and sometimes contradictory assertions, Massa surely has tried to make arm-twisting–and in the case of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, naked shower finger-pointing–the central issue. Perhaps Massa was just trying to capitalize upon the recent chatter about whether Emanuel is too rough or not rough enough to be President Obama’s chief of staff. (This essay by Mark Schmitt of the American Prospect’s provides a good summary of that debate.)

But if there was cause to do any bullying of Massa it was not because of his voting patterns but because of the potential harm he might do in exacerbating the Democrats’ mounting electoral problems this fall.

Indeed, when the assorted and sordid allegations about Massa groping or acting in sexually inappropriate ways with staffers began to come to light, one couldn’t help but recall Republican Rep. Mark Foley’s September 2006 resignation. To be sure, there are fundamental differences between the details of Massa and Foley incidents, as Time’s Jay Newton-Small and others have correctly noted. But now there is another key distinction, one of great political-electoral import as the November midterms approach: The Massa story-bomb exploded in March, not September.

More to the point, if Massa had been acting like a Blue Dog despite representing some liberal or at least safe Democratic district in which Democrats might replace him with a suitably loyal substitute, that would make sense in terms of expressing ire about his defections. But Massa won–barely and after two attempts–in a traditionally Republican district that is likely to flip back to the GOP now.

That said, and given that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer knew about Massa’s odd behavior at least as early as the second week of February–and, presumably and by extension, so too did both Hoyer’s boss Nancy Pelosi and Hoyer’s former House leadership colleague Emanuel–it’s not unreasonable to conclude that House Democrats and the White House (a) realized Massa could present a political problem for them later; and thus (b) wanted him out as soon as possible. In fact, the person who best understands the potential political-electoral implications of a ticking Massa timebomb exploding in autumn is none other than Emanuel; as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair in 2006, he benefited most from the Foley story going national that September and has since been lionized as the man who delivered Democrats to the majority promise land.

I’m not claiming Hoyer or Emanuel did anything to move the story along. Indeed, after what we’ve witnessed in recent days, perhaps all that worried Democrats on Capitol Hill or in the White House needed to was stand aside and watch as Massa implode on national television, as he did on Glen Beck’s show last night.

But given the lingering questions about whether Emanuel had some role in putting out the Foley story on the eve of the 2006 midterms, I suspect that the political story in the next week may turn from the subject of whether or not Democrats like Emanuel “bullied” Massa about his votes but whether, once Massa’s staffers approached Hoyer, there was an effort to ex-Foleyate congressional Democrats by cleansing themselves of Massa as soon as possible. (Yes, I’ve been dying to drop that pun.) After all, we know certain congressional Republicans had at least some prior knowledge of Foley’s scuzzy behaviors, and yet the GOP simply hoped the media would never find out. (Or they banked on the Democrats being too soft to do anything about it which, by the way, if Emanuel was somehow involved in Foley’s political outing, disproves the longstanding assumption that Democrats don’t have the guts to play hardball.)

By the way, let’s not underestimate the catalytic effect of such a story breaking at just the worst moments for a party. In 2006, a few weeks after the midterm elections which cost the Republicans their House majority, I attended a political conference at Northern Virginia Community College sponsored by the Cook Political Report. During his remarks, a top staffer from the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee–sorry, his name escapes me and my audio files have long since been deleted–said he remembered to the minute the exact moment in September 2006 when he first learned about the Foley page scandal. He said the entire staff of the NRCC, which at that point believed it had gained sufficient momentum during August and early September to perhaps limit Republican losses enough to maintain GOP control, was devastated and deflated.

Before the story began to unravel on him, Massa said he was resigning because he learned he had cancer. The fact is, he was fast becoming a cancer–or at least a potential electoral cancer for Democrats if he stayed in office and the story broke in the closing weeks of the autumn campaign.