New York Times
Novenber 20, 2004
Tom DeLay is bleeding and he doesn't even know it.
This week, House Republicans bent their accountability rules to protect their majority leader from what they feel is a partisan Texas prosecutor. But they hated the whole exercise. They sat in a conference room hour after hour wringing their hands. Only a few members were brave enough to stand up and say they shouldn't bend the rule. But afterward, many House Republicans came up to those members and said that secretly they agreed with them.
Somewhere in the psychology of the caucus something shifted. That ineffable thing called political capital began seeping away from DeLay. Someday people will look back and say this could be the moment when his power begins to ebb.
It's shifted because many House Republicans know that DeLay has been playing close to the ethical edge for years. They've noticed the number of scandals - the latest involving lobbying fees for some Indian casinos - that trace back to DeLay cronies. They still remember that delicious feeling of possibility when they arrived in Washington and vowed they would not turn into the corrupt old majority they had come to replace. They know Delay symbolizes their descent from that reformist ideal.
Why didn't more members get up and say something against DeLay?
There are several reasons. The most obvious is self-interest. DeLay and the leadership can take away your hopes of getting a chairmanship or a vote on your bill.
But there's also the fact that most House Republicans like DeLay. It's always important to remember that most of the mythology that surrounds the Hammer is total nonsense. He is not the behind-the-scenes power who controls the House. Speaker Dennis Hastert controls the House and feels free to overrule DeLay.
He is not the vicious strongman who terrorizes members and reduces them to tears to get their vote. Roy Blunt and Eric Cantor are the whips, not DeLay, and they are anything but vicious.
He's not even a terror to his peers. He can be firm, but he and his staff are noted for their graciousness. Connecticut moderate Chris Shays, who has tangled with DeLay more than anyone else, believes that DeLay is actually uncomfortable with personal confrontations. He's much better at offering carrots than wielding sticks.
In fact, DeLay has been a thoughtful majority leader. He rarely keeps the House in session beyond its scheduled hours. That means members, especially those with young families or marginal seats, can spend more time in their districts. That is deeply appreciated.
Finally, House Republicans did not rise up to denounce DeLay because while they know he represents some of the political tendencies they came to Washington to reform, none of them is pure enough to cast the first stone. They've all voted for the big deficits they vowed to combat. They've all watched the walls between the public servants and the private lobbyists get washed away.
If Republicans are going to recover the reformist spirit, they're going to have to do more than lessen the influence of Tom DeLay.
But let's face it, the problem starts there. Tom DeLay is a scandal waiting to happen. He casts himself as the enemy of Washington, but he's really a conventional (if effective) pol who wants to use dollars to entrench power. He represents the greatest danger the Republicans face, bossism. He wants to be the G.O.P.'s Boss Tweed.
Deep in the recesses of their minds, many Republicans know that voters around the country may never hear of Tom DeLay, but if the Republicans become just another self-dealing power clique, there will be hell to pay.
You could begin to hear a slight shift in Republican voices yesterday. Several were looking around and noticing that they have a very good and effective leadership team even without DeLay. Hastert has gone from being obscure to being beloved. Roy Blunt is efficient and smooth. Eric Cantor of Virginia is a rising star.
When people start gossiping about what the world would be like if you were gone - as Republicans are now starting to do with DeLay - you are in the first stages of political decline. It means that members start regarding you with a little less awe, and they start regarding your potential successors with a little more.
He doesn't face an immediate threat. But the next time a scandal licks up against him, DeLay will find his support is not as strong as he thought it would be. He'll turn around and find that his caucus has remembered its core values.