Ensign continues to get battered on all sides

If life were a Billboard chart, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., would have gone from No. 3 with a bullet to No. 100 with an anchor, leaving claw marks as he dropped farther. To note:

• In a Politico.com story the Las Vegas Review-Journal covered in a blog but not in print, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said, “If it is true that indeed he did make these payoffs and all that kind of stuff, then I would think the honorable thing would be to resign.” Harkin is the first senator to say anything like that about Ensign, and he normally has a high tolerance level: He’s from the state that gave us Charles Grassley, who served on the committee putting together the health-care bill and still lied that it included death panels.

• In a Senate Finance Committee hearing, Ensign hammered Goldman Sachs. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted, “You know you’re ethically compromised when Sen. John Ensign scolds you about ethics.”

• Time listed the 100 most influential Americans, so a columnist countered with the 100 least influential, including Tila Tequila, Mayor McCheese … and Ensign: “His sex scandal is so confusing—he gave a job to the husband of the woman he was cheating on his wife with (I think)—that it’s taking forever for him to be thrown out of office.” Even worse for Ensign, Gov. Jim Gibbons was on the list—and he was proud of it.

Nor does Ensign’s life figure to get better. The Senate Ethics Committee may hold open hearings, and the idea of either Doug or Cynthia Hampton getting more face time shouldn’t fill Ensign’s heart with glee, nor should exhuming any other questions about him. Worse, while he and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., have enjoyed a mutual nonaggression pact almost from the day Ensign arrived in the Senate, Reid has his own issues to deal with and other Nevada Democrats never signed that treaty.

Ensign can expect little support here. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., called him “a wounded junior senator.” While Nevadans shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for Heller to accomplish anything, he cited the scandal as one of his reasons for not joining every other registered Republican in Nevada in challenging Reid. Heller may have meant Ensign would hurt the GOP ticket; or he may have meant he can wait until Ensign’s term is up, if Ensign lasts that long.

Most other Nevada Republicans have minimal loyalty to Ensign. The contrast is ironic: Democrats often have criticized Reid for interfering with party business back home, while Republicans have criticized Ensign for not interfering. Now they may be grateful, except when they stop to ponder where he was and what he was doing instead of building up a party. Increasing the irony, Ensign easily won election in 2000 and 2006, yet never was personally popular with the rank-and-file.

His Senate colleagues haven’t rushed to his defense, either. David Vitter, R-La., should have, since Ensign supported him over a scandal involving an escort service. Maybe Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., could have spoken up: Graham, seen by those who don’t know any better as a moderate, was a House prosecutor in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. Ensign helpfully called for Clinton’s resignation over his sex life and lies related to it.

Back home, GOP national committeeman Robert List pooh-poohed the idea that Ensign would hurt his party, which, given List’s track record as a governor and Yucca Mountain flack, isn’t a good sign. By contrast, a couple of lower-level party officials have called on Ensign to step down.

That would create enough fascinating scenarios. Suppose Gibbons loses the primary and Ensign resigns. Does Gibbons resign, letting Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki move up and appoint Gibbons to the Senate? It has happened before in Nevada. That might give Gibbons enough time in Washington to help some drunken women find their cars.

Or what if Ensign holds on but then is forced to leave next year? Suppose Rory Reid is elected governor and Harry Reid is defeated. A governor would choose someone from his party, and if you want someone with Senate experience …

To which you say, both scenarios are ridiculous. They are at least as ridiculous as a grown man claiming the family of his mistress received a $96,000 from his parents as a gift.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.

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