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Gary Younge
Forget Iraq and Guantánamo; this is about the bottle and the zipper

And so it is that, as the extent of the carnage in Iraq becomes evident and North Korea goes nuclear, America's political class obsesses over a single Congressman's predilection for teenage boys.

The scandal of Mark Foley, the Florida representative who sent lewd email messages to Congressional pages, has galvanised the Democrat leadership into aggressive opposition in a way that Abu Ghraib never could. They know how to make electoral capital out of a gay man propositioning American teenagers (as of yet there is no suggestion that he actually molested any of them). But when it came to American soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners to masturbate for the camera, their ability to focus minds on inappropriate sexual behaviour and abuse of power somehow eluded them.

Now, with three weeks to go before the mid-term elections, the Democrats are flipping the traditional script. "Anybody who had a personal vulnerability before this is totally [at risk] with the spotlight on scandal," a Democratic aide told the Washington Post. "Frankly, it is a tough environment out there if you have a problem with the bottle or the zipper."

From the party that brought you Bill Clinton and Teddy Kennedy this is new territory indeed, but they are covering it like old pros. The handful of Republicans either personally close to Foley or who may be implicated in the alleged cover-up by the Republican leadership are in the direct line of fire, putting once safe seats in play. But elsewhere Democrats are simply looking for dirt, throwing it, seeing if it sticks, and then screaming "Foley". Last week in New Jersey, the Democrat candidate Linda Stender accused her Republican opponent, Mike Ferguson, of preying on young women in a Washington DC nightclub. In Pennsylvania, Chris Carney has accused his Republican opponent of "repeatedly choking" and "attempting to strangle" his young mistress. In upstate New York, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand is pressuring the Republican incumbent, John Sweeney, to explain a drunk-driving arrest 30 years ago as well as a more recent accident. The Foley scandal "opened the door to talk about the ethical challenge of my opponent", said Stender.

So the party that was only recently laid low by evangelicals is now running on moral values. The Republicans, who lead the charge on family values and gay marriage, are running away from them. And with 15 House seats and six Senate seats between government and opposition, at stake is who will run the country.

After 12 years of Republican domination of both Houses of Congress (give or take a brief interlude), the Democrats seem poised to retake the House of Representatives. They may even get the Senate, though that remains a long shot. In a system where, thanks to big money and gerrymandering, 98% of incumbents are usually re-elected, such changes in Congressional leadership are rare. The Republicans have far more money and are far better organised. But it looks increasingly likely.

"This is without question the worst political situation for the GOP since the Watergate disaster in 1974," wrote the veteran analyst Charles Cook in his political report on Friday. "I think a 30-seat gain today for Democrats is more likely to occur than a 15-seat gain, the minimum that would tip the majority. The chances of that number going higher are also strong, unless something occurs that fundamentally changes the dynamic of this election. This is what Republican strategists' nightmares look like."

A recent Pew research survey revealed 51% of voters plan to back Democrats against 38% for the Republicans. Moreover, Democrats are more pumped up. Currently 59% of Democratic voters say they have given a lot of thought to this election, 51% are more enthusiastic about voting than usual, and 71% say they are angry. Republicans are far more distracted and less keen.

The trouble is the things the Democrats are angriest and more enthusiastic about are, for the most part, not the things their party is talking about. The Foley episode is having about as much impact on voting intentions as the Lewinsky affair did on Clinton's approval ratings - none. The Pew poll was being conducted as the Foley story broke. Interviews before and after he resigned gave almost identical results.

True, along with the Abramoff lobbying scandal (which claimed another Congressional scalp last week with the resignation of Ohio representative Bob Ney), the manner in which the Foley saga was mishandled does compound the sense of an out-of-touch Republican leadership out to protect its own. Given Foley's sexual orientation the Republicans are less likely to take their gay-baiting rhetoric to the polls. All in all it has confirmed the sense that Republicans have been in power too long. But there is little evidence that it has changed anyone's mind or is likely to suppress even the evangelical vote.

For if America's political class are pushing de Tocqueville's "puerile trifles", the electorate is clearly far more interested in substance. With wages stagnant, health costs rising and the military death toll in Iraq this month hovering close to a two-year high, voters want serious answers to serious questions. The Pew survey showed that the six issues of most concern to the electorate were Iraq, terrorism, the economy, healthcare, immigration and energy policy.

Last week, the Democrat minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, addressed some of these concerns. She pledged that in the first 100 hours of a Democrat majority she will increase the minimum wage, reduce interest rates on student loans, expand federal funding for stem-cell research, and require the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of prescription drugs for Medicare.

This is great as far as it goes. It provides an answer to those who claim there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. But it also confirms the accusation that, given the challenges facing American society, this difference is inadequate. For one of the reasons the Democrats are so eager to talk about the Foley scandal is because they have little substantive to say on the matters on the American public's mind.

Pelosi might have added to her to-do list closing down Guantánamo Bay, setting a date for troop withdrawal from Iraq, raising taxes on the top earners to help curb the deficit, and putting a stop to warrantless wiretapping. But the truth is that Democrats have no consistent or coherent position on Iraq, terrorism or anything else much. The last few months have told the tale of Republican demise, not a Democrat revival.

So while November 7 promises the possibility of electoral change, the prospect of real political change seems remote. The Democrats are standing for office, but little else.

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