Tom DeLay is quitting a re-election race he could not win and soon will exit the House he held in a hammerlock for the better part of a decade because, he says, “It was obvious to me that this election had become a referendum on me.” But if there is to be any real repair of the democracy that DeLay so damaged, November’s competition for control of the House still must be that referendum on DeLay–or, more precisely, on the “DeLayism” that continues to characterize this Congress.
The vast majority of the House Republican Caucus, and every member elected since the Republican “revolution” of 1994, owe not just their Congressional careers but their understanding of how to play the political game to the disgraced former House majority leader. It was DeLay who replaced the clumsy corruption of the reckless visionary with whom he had climbed the ladder of power, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with the rigid pay-to-play policy-making that defines Washington today. The Texas Congressman may have worked through others, most notably the hapless wrestling coach he positioned two heartbeats away from the presidency, Speaker Dennis Hastert, but no one ever doubted that this was The Hammer’s House. And so it remains.
The great deception that is foisted upon voters by defenders of the status quo is the claim that the broken machinery of government can be fixed by replacing a crooked chief mechanic. The problem, of course, is that the chief mechanic trains the team that is left behind to run the machinery, and that is particularly true in DeLay’s case. Just as Public Citizen’s Joan Claybrook is right when she says that DeLay “led his colleagues to new heights of corruption,” so she is right when she says that the departure of the Bible-quoting architect of their corruption is not going to turn his acolytes into choir boys. Redemption is not in the cards for this crowd. That’s because the bug-spray specialist from Sugar Land, Texas, fundamentally altered his party and Congress by exterminating not just Democrats but those pesky Republicans who challenged his schemes. DeLay “primaried” colleagues whose ethics got in the way of his project, steering money and support to challengers who either defeated independent-thinking GOP incumbents or scared them into lining up with his agenda. Behind closed doors, senior members of the House cried, pleaded and threatened to expose DeLay, but when the time came, they voted as he told them they must.
Eventually DeLay obtained a House majority that he could deliver with such certainty that he was able to dictate not just the course of Congressional deliberations but the politics of Washington and much of the nation. That power, in turn, allowed his K Street Project to redefine campaign giving so that corporations no longer hedged bets by dividing their largesse between the two parties; they simply hired lobbyists and wrote checks as DeLay and his operatives instructed. With unlimited resources at his command, DeLay moved to create the permanent majority that would allow him to set the agenda for decades to come–not by winning elections but by manipulating the redistricting process to create an ever expanding pool of districts where Republicans could not lose. DeLay even ventured into presidential politics, dispatching an Izod-clad army of aides and allies to Miami in November 2000 to shut down a Dade County recount that he feared would deny the presidency to fellow Texan George W. Bush.
With his President in position and Republican hegemony assured, DeLay went on a five-year rampage, keeping votes on unpopular trade deals and other Bush Administration legislative initiatives open until enough arms were broken to deliver one- vote majorities; seeding lobbying firms with former aides whose “access” made them millionaires and who, in turn, assured that the majority leader’s burgeoning network of campaign committees never wanted for the money that is the mother’s milk of politics; and pressing campaign givers who had no interest in Texas but a desire to keep the majority leader happy to fund a takeover of that state’s legislature that made it possible to redistrict five Democratic Congressmen out of their seats. DeLay’s excesses finally caught up with him only because a courageous Texas prosecutor, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, secured the indictments that toppled the King of Capitol Hill, first from his leadership perch and then, as federal and state indictments and convictions of former aides associated with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal brought the certainty of new and more serious prosecutions, from Congress itself.
DeLay is gone. But the machine he built goes on. Even after handing off his leadership first to a bumbling henchman, Missouri Congressman Roy Blunt, and then to the more graceful if still ethically challenged John Boehner, DeLay remains the GOP’s Godfather Without Portfolio. When he announced his exit strategy, DeLay was praised for statesmanship that only the most blindly loyal disciple could have detected, with Boehner saying of his predecessor: “He has served our nation with integrity and honor.”
Absurd as those words may be, they are a true evocation of Republican sentiments regarding DeLay. Yes, he became a public embarrassment. But behind the closed doors of this House, he remains the definitional figure. He elected its members and he trained them to play politics by a set of rules so perverse and so perverting that most of them have been rendered incapable of changing the way they do business. Even if some Republicans attempt a public rebranding, they will remain bound to the electoral infrastructure that DeLay created, a web of PACs, educational projects and charities designed not just to shake the corporate money tree but to reap votes from the Christian fundamentalist base DeLay courted even to the point of aligning the party leadership–including Bush and Senate majority leader Bill Frist–with the narrow minority view that Terri Schiavo must be kept technically “alive” in a persistent vegetative state.
Only an election can rid the House of DeLayism. The Hammer acknowledged as much by stage-managing a final exit that was one last manipulation of the process: an attempt to remove the symbol of what ails Congress in order to preserve the ailment itself. Republicans still think they can cling to the power DeLay gave them. The redistricting crimes DeLay committed, not just in Texas but nationally, give GOP candidates advantages even as polls suggest that sentiment is rapidly shifting away from the party in power. Currently, only a few dozen Congressional districts are genuinely competitive. That circumstance might shift if Democrats develop a progressive equivalent of Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America. But if the opposition party fails to nationalize the 2006 election, this fall will be characterized by the political version of hand-to-hand combat in the few districts that will decide control of a chamber where a fifteen-seat shift can put Democrats in charge.
At this point the competition is close enough–thanks to Bush’s sagging ratings, public frustration with the war and fears about Social Security, Republican retirements and a reasonably strong class of Democratic challengers–that DeLay’s decision to step aside so a more electable Republican can compete for his seat is a significant development. One seat could matter that much. And DeLay’s sacrifice will energize the army of warriors he trained. They will not surrender the ground easily. But without a leader–and the financial and tactical skills he brought to the battle–the Republican majority is finally vulnerable. And that’s why DeLay’s exit creates as much of a challenge for Democrats as for Republicans.
GOP leaders know what they must do: Cut their losses, retain their power and regroup for the 2008 presidential election. For Democrats the task is greater. They must respond to the vulnerability that DeLay’s exit confirms not by telling themselves that getting rid of one terrible Texan has changed things, or that the stars are aligning in their favor, but by mounting a truly national campaign that tells the American people that no change will come until DeLay’s Congress is retired with him. The message for such a campaign has already been framed in its most basic sense by the Campaign for America’s Future and other groups that have dogged DeLay and the House Republican Caucus with a coherent, unrelenting attack on “the culture of corruption.” The themes are there for the taking. The campaign finance, ethics and election reform proposals have already been written. But they must be embraced, quickly and unequivocally, by Democrats who recognize that without DeLay to kick around anymore, they have to identify DeLayism as the infestation it is, and to finally make a populist and convincing case that they are committed to exterminating it once and for all.