Friday, September 30, 2005

DeLay and deny: The demise of The Hammer and the future of the Republican Party

(I wrote this for The Moderate Voice last night. I thought I'd double-post it here back at my home base.)

Speaking of Tom DeLay, the (now former) House Majority Leaders was, as you all know by now, indicted on Wednesday on charges of criminal conspiracy:

A Texas grand jury indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) yesterday on a charge of criminally conspiring with two political associates to inject illegal corporate contributions into 2002 state elections that helped the Republican Party reorder the congressional map in Texas and cement its control of the House in Washington.

The indictment forced DeLay, one of the Republicans' most powerful leaders and fundraisers, to step aside under House rules barring such posts to those accused of criminal conduct. House Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the third-ranking leader, was elected by Republican House members yesterday afternoon to fill the spot temporarily after conservatives threatened a revolt against another candidate considered by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Although the indictment had been rumored for weeks among top Republicans, based on what several described as a difficult meeting in August between DeLay and the Texas prosecutor behind the case, it shook the GOP political establishment and posed new problems for the party as it heads into the midterm elections next year.

DeLay bitterly denounced the charge as baseless and defiantly called the prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, "an unabashed partisan zealot" engaging in "personal revenge" because DeLay helped elect a Republican majority to the Texas House in 2002. "I have the facts, the law and the truth on my side," DeLay said, reading from a statement, before declining to answer questions.

If he has the truth on his side, why didn't he answer questions? Is it because he'd have had to lie?

The reactions to the indictment and subsequent resignation, along with Blunt's accession, have been predictably diverse both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere, depending in large part on partisan inclination. See Joe Gandelman's post at TMV for a solid round-up of highlights.

Obviously, DeLay himself faces some serious problems — problems even he may not be able to overcome:

For the first time in more than a decade, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) arrived at work yesterday without a leadership title attached to his name. Sidelined from his post as majority leader by a criminal indictment in Texas, the man who accumulated extraordinary power on his way up the ladder faces a difficult and uncertain road back to those heights.

The money-laundering indictment back home represents just one of the obstacles DeLay must overcome before he can seek restoration as a member of the House GOP leadership. The other obstacles include a possible House ethics investigation; the scandal involving well-connected GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which has touched former DeLay staff members; and a 2006 reelection campaign that would have been difficult even without the indictment.

Even if he is able to beat the indictment in Texas and avoid other potential problems, there is no guarantee that his colleagues will want him back. At some point, they may decide that it is in their interest politically to move beyond the DeLay era, regardless of the status of his legal situation.

With post-DeLay leadership fights already in the offing and with growing concern about a deteriorating political climate that has less to do with DeLay than with Iraq, gasoline prices and President Bush's problems, House Republicans may find themselves torn between personal admiration for DeLay and a cold-eyed judgment of what is best for the party. "They've already turned the page," a GOP strategist said yesterday.

If so, then so much for DeLay, so much for The Hammer ruling the House with an iron fist, terrifying his friends into submission and throwing his enemies into fits of discombobulation.

And good riddance I say. And so say many liberals and Democrats for whom DeLay was the personification of the dark side of the Republican Party, if not of the Republican Party itself. But is this really the best way to look at it? Would it not be better for Democrats to have DeLay stay on as the face -- the ugly mug -- of the Republican Party? Better the focus on DeLay, after all, than on independently popular figures like McCain and Giuliani. This is precisely the argument made by John Dickerson at Slate just after the indictment was handed down, and it's one that should give pause to DeLay's opponents:

Democrats would have to be nuts to root for DeLay's scalp, something many of them admit in private. He's the best villain they'll ever have. DeLay's got troubles hanging from him like charm bracelets. Not only does he have the Texas mess, but he's been knocked three times by the House ethics committee for misusing his post, and he's been closely linked to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. At the level of personality, he positively oozes meanness, making him a perfect foil for Democrats. His poll numbers have been tanking. And now he's under indictment. DeLay makes an even more potent symbol bookended by Senate Majoriy Leader Bill Frist, who is having his own ethical inquiries into his stock sales.

Regardless, such partisan considerations and political calculations notwithstanding, DeLay's indictment is merely one more problem for the a Republican Party that is rotting from within. The Times:

The indictment of Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, on Wednesday was the latest in a series of scandals and setbacks that have buffeted Republican leaders in Congress and the Bush administration, and transformed what might have been a victory lap into a hard political scramble. Republicans are still managing to score some victories -- notably, Judge John G. Roberts Jr.'s expected confirmation as chief justice of the United States on Thursday -- but their governing majority is showing signs of strain.

In the House, Mr. DeLay's indictment removes, even if temporarily, a powerful leader who managed to eke out, again and again, narrow majorities on some difficult votes. In the Senate, Republican ranks have been roiled this week by an investigation of Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, who is under scrutiny for his stock dealings from a blind trust.

Moreover, the string of ethical issues so close together -- including the indictment and continuing investigation of the Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was close to Mr. DeLay, and the arrest of David H. Safavian, a former White House budget official who was charged with lying to investigators and obstructing a federal inquiry involving Mr. Abramoff -- is a source of anxiety in Republican circles.

"Even though DeLay has nothing to do with Frist, and Frist has nothing to do with Abramoff, how does it look? Not good," said William Kristol, a key conservative strategist and editor of The Weekly Standard.

At the same time, the White House is grappling with a criminal investigation into whether anyone leaked the name of a C.I.A. operative, an inquiry that has brought both Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top political adviser, and I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, before a grand jury.

And the administration is struggling to steady itself after the slow response to Hurricane Katrina and defend itself against sweeping accusations of incompetence and cronyism in domestic security.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Bill Kristol -- one of the better conservative pundits and an extremely bright man I've had the good pleasure to meet (like me, he's a Straussian, though on the other side of the political divide) -- surely knows that.

As USA Today put it, "[t]he Bush administration is already struggling on three fronts": the response to Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, and the War on Terror. DeLay, Frist, Plame/Rove, and Abramoff/Safavian -- this mix of scandals just adds to Bush's struggles.

To be sure, all of these issues (Katrina, Iraq, terrorism) and scandals (DeLay, Frist, the Plame Game, Abramoff) may be viewed independently of one another. And it's not as if Democrats are currently presenting a viable alternative to Republican leadership, whether in Congress or the White House. But, taken together, the barrage of ignorance, incompetence, and scandal has given Democrats an opening, and it will up to them to take advantage of it. For, despite John Roberts's successful confirmation, Republicans are reeling. As Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), former Clinton insider and current chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put it, "[t]heir party has run out of both legitimacy and intellectual steam". And here's David Gergen, former presidential advisor, ubiquitous talking head, and current director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard: "We've seen the hubris. And now we're seeing the scandals."

Dan Balz in the Post:

Bad news often comes in bunches, but for a Republican Party that not long ago looked ahead to an unfettered period of growth and expansion, yesterday's indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) represented one of the most significant blows the party has suffered in a year replete with problems.

Since the fall of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1998, no two Republicans have been more responsible for the GOP's recent electoral and legislative successes than DeLay and President Bush, a power tandem whose strengths have complemented one another repeatedly. Bush has been the party's public face, direction-setter and most effective campaigner. But in Washington, DeLay has been an iron force who bent the system to his will and priorities.

Over the years, DeLay raised and moved vast sums of money to buttress GOP candidates, kept the party's often-narrow majority together to move a Bush agenda that drew little Democratic support and changed the terms by which K Street lobbyists did business with Congress. With muscle and determination, DeLay ruled the inside game, and his indictment is therefore all the more significant — a powerful symbol that the Democrats will attempt to exploit as an example of the GOP's abuse of power.

The indictment — which Republicans say is politically motivated — adds to the gathering headwind that now threatens the Republicans as they look toward the 2006 elections. Whether this becomes the perfect storm that eventually swamps the GOP is far from clear a year out. But Republican strategists were nearly unanimous in their private assessments yesterday that the party must brace for setbacks next year.

On almost every front, Republicans see trouble. Bush is at the low point of his presidency, with Iraq, hurricane relief, rising gasoline prices and another Supreme Court vacancy all problems to be solved. Congressional Republicans have seen their approval ratings slide throughout the spring and summer; a Washington Post-ABC News poll in August found that just 37 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job, the lowest rating in eight years...

For Democrats, there were many cautionary notes yesterday, despite their obvious glee over DeLay's indictment. On a practical level, the House is now so gerrymandered by redistricting that far fewer districts are genuinely competitive, making the Democrats' task of scoring big gains there more difficult. Nor is there much evidence yet that the voters see Democrats as an attractive alternative, no matter how sour they may be about the Republicans.

But the DeLay indictment represents a powerfully disruptive force inside a party whose success has been built on discipline, cohesion and the mastery of the mechanics of politics at a time Republicans can least afford it.

And this may be the best quote I've read so far: "'Tom DeLay was like Tito in Yugoslavia,' said James A. Thurber, a professor of government at American University. 'He ruled with fear and also resources to reward people. Now without DeLay, the House will be balkanized.'"

To which I say: Bring it on! (And then bring DeLay back, just before the 2006 midterms.)

**********

Regardless, these are largely partisan concerns. Republicans are rallying around DeLay, sincerely or not, and Democrats are openly cheering even as they quietly want DeLay to remain in the public eye, a symbol of Republican corruption to run against in 2006 and 2008.

But what about what DeLay actually did? Well, it's not just this charge of criminal conspiracy. It's a career of corruption. The New Republic summed it up well in an editorial posted yesterday:

Throughout his Washington career, there is little wrong that DeLay hasn't done. He has transformed the House Republican majority into an arm of corporate special interests that benefit from an unprecedented "pay to play" culture of rewards for political donations. As symbolized by his well-known chumminess with the oleaginous Jack Abramoff, he has unapologetically blurred the lines between officeholders and lobbyists, deeply integrating K Street into his party's political and legislative strategy and treating it like a House Republican patronage machine. And DeLay, more than anyone, has been responsible for running the House of Representatives like a one-party dictatorship, both shutting out the Democratic minority (even denying them simple meeting space) and militantly smothering intraparty dissent.

Those are just the overarching themes of DeLay's disgraceful tenure in Congress. One could type for hours without exhausting the list of particular offenses for which he should have been ostracized by now: He has allegedly threatened K Street firms that failed to hire Republican lobbyists in sufficient numbers. He was admonished last year by the House ethics committee for essentially selling access to energy-industry executives just as Congress was wrapping up a major energy bill. The ethics committee also slapped DeLay for offering to endorse the candidate son of Republican Representative Nick Smith in exchange for Smith's vote in favor of a GOP Medicare bill. Then the ethics committee rebuked him a third time for his wildly inappropriate enlistment of the Federal Aviation Administration to hunt for a group of awol Texas legislators back in 2003...

Of course, even DeLay himself is merely a cog in a Washington Republican machine that has abandoned morality in its fanatical pursuit of power. Beyond rooting for a jury in Travis County, Texas, to return a guilty verdict in the months ahead, Democrats need to make clear to the public that his indictment represents a mere fraction of the Republican Congress's corruption. The House ethics committee, for instance, must continue to investigate Abramoff's sleazy lobbying, which envelops several other GOP congressmen and reveals the disgusting influence K Street lobbyists enjoy over federal lawmaking. Within the panoply of DeLay's countless other ethical (and potentially legal) offenses, Earle's indictment is relatively trivial. But a conviction would be a fitting end for the career of a mean-spirited, intellectually primitive, and ethically bankrupt man. And, with any luck, it could be the beginning of a desperately needed fumigation of Capitol Hill. That much DeLay, a former exterminator, would understand.

Democrats needs to run against DeLay and everything he represents even as they focus on sexier issues like Bush's mishandling of Iraq and Katrina.

The problem is, fumigation alone won't be enough. In the end, Democrats need to convince Americans than they can govern on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, that they have the ideas -- and the leaders -- to take over from the Republicans.

They have a lot of work yet to do.

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