12.11.08

The New GOP Rock Star

Joseph Cao's unexpected victory in Louisiana is reminder that sleazy political scandals aren't always a bad thing.

Joseph Cao's unexpected victory in Louisiana is reminder that sleazy political scandals aren't always a bad thing. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

Blagojevich and Cao. Obama and Jindal. These are the names of American politics in the 21st century—continent-hopping and vowel-heavy. We’ve come a long way from the staid Anglo-Saxon parade of Smith and Jones. But politics is a human drama, and while the lyrics may change, the song remains the same.

Chicagoans woke up Tuesday morning to the familiar tune of corruption in the governor’s mansion—this time with lyrics that warrant a parental advisory sticker.

Using language that would make a drunk Nixon blush, two-term Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was caught on tape discussing the sale of the president-elect’s senate seat to the highest bidder.

Cao is an extension of the Bobby Jindal Louisiana reform revolution that’s sweeping David Duke’s adopted state and party.

But on the opposite end of the Mississippi River, another tale of corruption took an unexpected and heartwarming turn this week. Indicted Congressman William Jefferson lost to political newcomer Ahn “Joseph” Cao, who will be the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress and is the first reason for Republicans to smile in a while.

It’s yin and yang, sunshine and shadow, as one politician’s greed increases cynicism, another emerges from the ashes of scandal, giving reason for new hope.

Corruption was a dish served comparatively cold in the case of Rep. Jefferson, the local civil rights legend who was discovered to have more than $90,000 stashed in his freezer. Subsequent investigation showed that he had set up a patronage operation to benefit his own brood. Defiant even under indictment, Jefferson ran for re-election and triumphed in two crowded Democratic primaries. But thanks to Hurricane Gustav in late August, the general election was pushed back to December 6th.

Nobody had given much thought to the Republican challenger, Ahn “Joseph” Cao—a 41-year old lawyer and former Jesuit philosophy professor who had been evacuated from Vietnam as an 8-year old boy during the fall of Saigon and recently found his home under 8 feet of water after Hurricane Katrina. That’s because Louisiana’s 2nd district was gerrymandered to be solidly Democratic and African American. The electorate is 62% black, 66% Democrat, and only 11% Republican—the remaining 23% of registered voters are independents.

Cao mounted a modest and moderate campaign, attracting disaffected Democrats who had run unsuccessfully against Jefferson and those who were just disgusted at the idea of returning an indicted official to Washington. A look at Cao’s campaign website shows his policy priorities: Ethics Reform, Hurricane and Coastal Restoration, Public Safety and Economic Recovery, and Healthcare Reform.

This is a local Louisiana version of the playbook Republicans will need to regain relevance. Beyond the immediate satisfaction of seeing the spotlight of scandal swing back onto the Democrats, the GOP must advocate individual accountability and zero-tolerance on ethics violations to put the stain of the Tom DeLay-Jack Abramhoff years behind them. Republicans must also focus on local issues that emphasize public safety, economic development and the environment. And finally, the party needs to offer solutions to urgent personal and pocketbook issues such as healthcare.

Notice what’s missing from this list—the culture-war social issues that have been front-loaded in so many recent campaigns. As a former Jesuit professor at Loyola University, Cao is an observant Catholic and pro-life—but it’s not a policy priority. Notice also what’s upfront but (almost) unspoken in his candidacy—diversity.

This is the not-so-secret Republican Achilles’ heel, especially in the age of Obama. There is still not a single African-American Republican in Congress. But Cao is an extension of the Bobby Jindal Louisiana reform revolution that’s sweeping David Duke’s adopted state and party. This is a healthy and necessary trend, two sons of immigrant running against the local Democratic machine on the Republican line. It is not enough to overturn lily-white stereotypes, but it is a step in the right direction.

The buffoonish graft surfacing in Chi-town and the Big Easy confirms old stereotypes (Blagojevich is the fifth Illinois governor indicted in the last 50 years). But corruption is not just a regional speciality. The tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut—supposedly more sophisticated and committed to good government—has in the past few years seen governors, mayors and state legislators resign in disgrace.

So as the sordid Blagojevich scandal unfolds, and threatens to cast a pall on Obama’s promise for new beginnings, it is worth remembering Congressman-elect Cao’s pledge to his district: “To reestablish our trust our government and our elected officials must become more open and transparent…While we cannot ‘legislate morality’ we can certainly demand moral and ethical behavior from those who have been elected to serve.”

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon also served as Director of Speechwriting and Deputy Director of Policy for Rudy Giuliani's Presidential Campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as Chief Speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He worked on Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign.