The distinctly uncompassionate partner to compassionate conservative George W. Bush in 2001 will be House majority whip Tom DeLay, the Texas firebrand who is arguably the most powerful man in Congress. A gleeful hard-right partisan, nicknamed “the Hammer” for his willingness to use brute political power and for his often heavy-handed manner, DeLay is the man Democrats love to hate. During the Battle of Florida, DeLay called Vice President Gore’s recount effort “nothing less than a theft in progress” and organized a phalanx of Republican aides from Capitol Hill who, neatly groomed and white-shirted, staged the ersatz riot outside the doors of the Miami-Dade canvassing board that may or may not have convinced the board’s hapless officials to shut down the recount there. And, amid the bipartisan song of love currently wafting through the nation’s capital, DeLay has consistently emitted off-key notes of combative rancor.
“We are at exactly what I’ve worked for in my twenty-two years of elected office. We are the majority party in this country. There is no tied election,” DeLay told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in early December, fired up by the fact that Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. “This is one incredible opportunity. I don’t really understand some Republicans running around depressed. This is the greatest opportunity we’ve had in our lives. And I can’t wait.”
DeLay is fiercely ideological and closely tied to the Republican right, including Christian conservatives, flat-taxers, the National Rifle Association, free-enterprise libertarians and rural property-rights activists out West. Addressing the Christian Coalition’s Road to Victory 2000 conference last September, DeLay thundered against what he called “a cultural coup d’état, a revolution launched by a privileged few who are determined to discredit and, ultimately, replace core American traditions.” In the last session of Congress, he co-sponsored bills to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Energy, make English America’s official language, establish right-to-work laws nationally, gut the Endangered Species Act, remove all limits on campaign contributions and enact a host of antilabor and antiabortion standards. “He is among the twenty most conservative members of Congress,” says Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way.
Democrats in Congress, who’ve battled DeLay for the past six years, portray him as an uncompromising advocate for the conservative fringe. “Over the last two years, Tom DeLay has sabotaged a whole series of bipartisan agreements on bills, burying them in committees or stopping them in [House-Senate] conference,” says an aide to minority leader Dick Gephardt. “They’ve been very creative about it.” What’s unknown, the aide said, is whether George W. Bush will allow DeLay to pull him to the right. “That’s the big question. There is no indication that DeLay will consider moderating his views.”
But DeLay is no cardboard-cutout right-wing fanatic. Despite his rhetorical flamboyance, he is a savvy and pragmatic behind-the-scenes player with a masterful ability to count votes, build coalitions and get things done. He controls the single most powerful political machine in Washington, running the Republican caucus in the House like a private fiefdom and maintaining unparalleled ties to the class of Washington lobbyists, political action committees, law firms and money men (collectively known as “K Street”). If President Bush and the Republicans succeed in advancing a conservative agenda in 2001, Tom DeLay will be the reason why–and, all the while, DeLay will be tugging the centrist-leaning Bush steadily rightward.
“While he’s known for his ideological fervor, he can also be a steely-eyed pragmatist,” says Marshall Wittman, a conservative activist at the Hudson Institute in Washington. While he will quietly press the hard-right cause, he may also be useful to Bush in keeping the right on the reservation, says Wittman. “Because of his credibility, he can also deliver the bad news to the right. He can say, ‘Here’s what we can get for you. It’s only half a loaf.'”