September 9, 2007 in Idaho

Analysis: Craig’s decision to fight no surprise

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Larry Craig is a very tenacious guy.

He’s the man who relentlessly pushed a failed balanced budget amendment over and over for more than a quarter-century in Congress, and stuck by traditional resource industries even as the national environmental tide turned against them.

So while the nation puzzles over Craig’s continued efforts to avoid ending his career in the disgrace of a sex-solicitation scandal – despite nationwide humiliation as the story drags on, scorn from his own party and the possibility of hurting its chances in the next election – those who’ve watched Craig for years say his persistence is in character.

“Since when does he run from a fight?” asked Greg Casey, the former Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. Senate who worked for years as Craig’s chief of staff in the House and Senate. “This isn’t about holding onto power. This is not about that. This is about fighting to clear his name, for himself, for his wife, for his family, and for his future. And some people back here are so upset that this inconveniences them. And it may inconvenience them, but this is the rest of his life. What’s so hard to understand about that?”

Jim Weatherby, Boise State University political scientist emeritus, said, “When he said he would stay in and fight, that’s when it really got bad. He could have left with that first press conference and avoided all of the negative stories that came after.”

At that point, there was scandal, but Craig still was drawing praise for the accomplishments of his long career that preceded his arrest and guilty plea in an airport restroom sex-solicitation sting.

“Now he leaves with nothing. They don’t even talk to him,” said Weatherby, who’s watched Craig since both were students at the University of Idaho in the 1960s.

Psychologists say the senator’s behavior may stem in part from something called “cognitive dissonance.” “Essentially, people don’t like it when their attitudes and behaviors conflict,” said Eric Landrum, a professor of psychology at BSU. The only options to resolve such a conflict, Landrum said, are to change either the attitude or the behavior.

Craig has made it clear he’s not changing his attitude about the scandal.

“The other option is to change the behavior, to have the guilty plea overturned and then in some way think that the incident never happened or didn’t happen the way others believe it did,” Landrum said. “By changing the behavior after the fact, it could be his attempt to resolve his level of cognitive dissonance.”

BSU psychology professor Charles Honts said it’s difficult for people who have so heavily invested in something that it’s become central to who they are – like a high-profile career in public service – to give it up. “We tend to fight very hard to hold on to those core aspects of our personality,” he said.

Craig has never been one to give in. The balanced budget amendment he championed is perhaps the best example of that.

Former state Sen. Dane Watkins remembers working with Craig on a resolution to Congress back in the 1970s, when Craig was a state senator, urging Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment. “So he’s been working on that for three decades,” Watkins said. “That’s how he is.”

Craig came close to getting the amendment passed in the U.S. House and then came within a single vote of enacting it in the U.S. Senate. Long after it failed, he was still pushing it – and proposed a version again this year.

“He sticks with his guns,” Casey said. “When we started that balanced budget amendment, there wasn’t even a majority in the House that would sponsor that thing when he started banging that drum. … A lot of people would have abandoned the idea and moved on – a lot of people did abandon the idea and move on. But not Larry.”

Craig also has been a consistent defender of the agriculture, mining and timber industries, a longtime opponent of new wilderness designations in Idaho, and a staunch advocate of gun rights, serving more than 20 years on the National Rifle Association board, a post he still holds.

“Larry has been a very consistent conservative,” Casey said.

His stand on immigration reform – backing the AgJobs bill favored by agriculture interests – brought him heat as furor built over illegal immigration. Much of that heat came from Craig’s conservative base of supporters. But Craig has stuck to that position since 1999, even in the face of heckling and sharp criticism at home and on talk radio.

Casey, who now heads the Business and Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC, in Washington, D.C., said Craig’s abandonment by former allies in the nation’s capital in the wake of the scandal was shocking to him. “I don’t think there were any of us that weren’t shocked by how quickly this town sort of collapsed on him,” Casey said.

Weatherby said some of Craig’s stands over the years may have contributed to that. For example, he pushed long and hard to get nuclear waste out of Idaho and into a permanent repository in Nevada, over that state’s objections. One of the major calls for Craig’s quick exit came from influential GOP Sen. John Ensign of Nevada.

And Weatherby said many of Craig’s supporters in Idaho were more ready to turn on him because they were angry about his immigration stand.

Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, has sparred with Craig for years over wilderness and conservation issues. “It’s not an accident that there hasn’t been a wilderness bill to pass in 27 years, and he’s been in office 27 years,” Johnson said. “Larry Craig is sort of driving down the policy road a lot of times, I believe, looking in the rear-view mirror, trying to preserve an Idaho that doesn’t exist anymore. … You can’t drive forward and look backwards at the same time.”


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