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Greenfield: Could Foley's follies hurt the GOP?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Well, it's October, so -- surprise! The most politically explosive writing to hit Washington last week wasn't what's in Bob Woodward's pages. It was those alleged e-mails between Mark Foley and at least a couple of congressional pages and what the House Republican leadership did or didn't do back last fall.

If you want one clue about the political fallout from all this, you can look back more than 20 years ago.

In 1983, the House Ethics Committee revealed that two House members had been sexually involved with pages: liberal Massachusetts Democrat Gerry Studds and conservative Illinois Republican Daniel Crane. Crane was involved with a female, Studds a male; both pages were over the legal age of consent. Both Studds and Crane were censured by the House, but their responses -- and their political fates -- were very different.

Crane was repentant; tearfully apologized to his wife and family, asked for forgiveness.

As the rules require, he stood in the well of the House to receive his censure and faced his colleagues.

By contrast, Studds was unrepentant. He said the relationship was legal and consensual, talked about the difficulties of being a gay man in America, and when the House censured him, he turned his back on his colleagues, as if to reject their censure.

The next year, Crane, who had been an outspoken advocate of "family values," was soundly defeated by voters in his conservative district. Studds was re-elected handily, and served in the House for more than a dozen years, until his retirement.

What's the relevance? Well, consider the role of social conservatives, like those who attended the recent Family Research Council gathering in Washington. They fill the ranks of GOP turnout operations at election time. Some, like James Dobson of "Focus on the Family," have already expressed disappointment in how Republicans have treated their priorities, like gay marriage and abortion.

As the earlier scandal shows, such conservatives are particularly likely to punish sexual misbehavior. And if they conclude that top Republican leaders did not pursue such behavior when they learned of it, the political consequences -- diminished enthusiasm, lower turnouts -- could be severe.

The specifics of this issue are entangled in dispute: Were the earlier, alleged sexually explicit communications leaked with a political agenda in mind? Did the leadership see only the less explicit communications? (Watch a timeline of when the House leadership knew about Foley's e-mail -- 2:05 )

But the campaign season does not deal well with subtleties. If this story ends up convincing social conservatives that the Republican Party has let them down, a lot of the calculations about what will happen in November go right out the window.

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Will allegations that former Republican Rep. Mark Foley exchanged sexually explicit instant messages with a 16-year-old former congressional page make it less likely you'll vote Republican in November?
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