It now appears there have been three Mark Foley landmines waiting to explode beneath the feet of congressional Republicans.
The first was the aggressive behavior of the six-term veteran Foley, who resigned from Congress Sept. 29 when the raw nature of his interest in congressional pages became public. Foley actually shocked Washington, and that's not easy to do in our time.
Bad as it was, that was just the first explosion.
The second came when people realized how much had been known about Foley's attention to pages and pursuit of former pages. It seems that at a minimum, several members of Congress and its staff were aware of the problem.
This second explosion was more damaging than the first. It created the impression that the Republican leaders in the House were more concerned with political damage than with protecting the pages. Polls show most Americans now believe this.
As for the third landmine, it's still lying un-detonated, just below the surface on Capitol Hill. And it has the potential to cause the most far-reaching damage of all.
This untouched landmine is the fact that quite a few of the people who are essential to running the House are gay, and many of them are keeping it a secret. This includes some members and many staff. And it most definitely includes Republicans.
In fact, because Hill gays who are Democrats are more likely to be out — having less to fear in terms of reprisal — the closeted gays are more likely as a rule to be Republican.
All this is ho-hum to many denizens of Washington. The presence of gays among the congressional members and staff is old news, if rarely discussed in public. In practical terms, most on the Hill have gotten over it, including many of the most conservative Republicans in both chambers.
But can the same be said for some of the Republican Party's most ardent supporters? Spokesmen for several organizations of social conservatives, frequently lumped together as "the Christian right," have been in the media since the Foley story broke, expressing their dismay. Stunned by the idea of men preying on pages, they seem disquieted, too, by the stories identifying various key staff figures as openly gay.
This is not a good report if you're an activist leader who regularly tells your constituency the Republicans are the good guys, the defenders of biblical morality and the knights of straight sexual traditions. Could it be the GOP opposes gay marriage and domestic partner legislation but looks the other way when it comes to the behavior of its own?
That question was implicit in what was said by Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, who wondered whether the Foley affair was not the byproduct of "too much tolerance and diversity."
The Republican Party has striven to have it both ways. They want to champion traditional mores and oppose the normalization of gay life, the mainstreaming of domestic partners and "Will and Grace." Yet they regularly elevate gays to key positions in their campaigns and in all three branches of the government, with the tacit understanding that these individuals will keep their private lives to themselves.
There are also occasions when the same party that presses for a ban on gay marriage by constitutional amendment appoints acknowledged gays to important jobs in the executive branch. Witness this week's installation of a new ambassador for HIV-AIDS policy, a gay man whose male partner attended the ceremony along with First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
This may all be politics as usual for the more urbane Republicans, but surely it is not a casual matter to all.
Perkins and some of his confreres have formed a coalition called the Arlington Group. It has made known its unhappiness with the current Republican leadership over l'affair Foley and over other issues as well. How much, they are asking, has this Congress, elected with the help of our ground troops, really done for traditional morality?
As the Foley investigation goes forward, we will hear some say the Republican apparatus harbors a kind of gay mafia, a network of both open and secretive gays who use their power to protect one other — and perhaps to thwart the traditional values agenda.
Some conservatives who think this way may find themselves making common cause with liberal gays (strange bedfellows, anyone?). The latter sub-group is always threatening to expose the hypocrisy of conservative gays — especially those who keep their orientation private while serving members given to gay bashing. It is rumored that lists are already circulating which name the names of those whose presence in high places displeases.
The implication of such lists is: Prepare for a housecleaning. Any such purge would be dispiriting and destructive for the institution of Congress, a throwback to the loyalty oaths and other excesses of the McCarthy period. But there may be other, still more portentous consequences.
Some activists in the GOP see Foley as their opportunity to discredit the "big tent" philosophy cited by GOP leaders — and a chance to read gays out of the party once and for all. But if they do, they may initiate an even larger schism in the party between traditionalists and libertarians, between those who prioritize "moral values" and those who prefer to talk about the economy and defense.
Hardliners on either side of that divide may want such a clash to come. But big splits have meant big defeats for the GOP in the past, most recently in 1992. It would be disastrous timing to have a similar schism in 2006 — or in 2008.
Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.