Bringing Down The House

David Corn

April 13, 2005

David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).

Where are you going to be on May 12? At the gala tribute dinner conservative groups in Washington are throwing for Tom DeLay? No? I won't be there either. But I'm glad conservatives are rallying behind DeLay, the scandal-struck Republican House majority leader. These conservatives are sticking to rather dangerous talking points. They keep insisting that the attacks on DeLay are nothing more than the dark work of the nasty liberal media that has been plotting with Democrats to destroy the entire conservative movement. If only. And—no coincidence—this is precisely how DeLay sees his current predicament. When The New York Times reported that he and his daughter received half a million dollars in fees from his campaign and political action committee, DeLay called the story, "Another seedy attempt by the liberal media to embarrass me." (Did he dismiss the Times ' articles on Whitewater in such a fashion?)

When a shifty politician starts to blame media conspiracies for his own misdeeds, that's a good indication he senses real trouble is looming. But DeLay's ethics problems—taking overseas junkets arranged and paid for by corrupt lobbyists and foreign agents; putting family members on the payroll; setting up a political action committee that engages in shady (perhaps illegal) contributions laundering; virtually extorting another member to vote for a piece of legislation; among other questionable activities—have nothing to do with his right-wing views. Even the always-ready-for-a-fight conservative editorialists of The Wall Street Journal recently observed that DeLay has "odor issues," "smells just like the Beltway itself," and is "betraying the broader set of principles that brought him into office."

Still, most conservatives are accepting DeLay's  l'etat-c’est-moi strategy. The Washington Post reported that when right-wing leaders gathered at a meeting recently, Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who heads the save-DeLay forces in the House, told them that the anti-DeLay articles are appearing because the Democrats are unwilling "to accept the Republican majority in Congress, and see this majority leader as one that they can't beat at the polls and now have taken to a planned attack of personal destruction."

I wish the Democrats were that organized. Does Cantor truly believe that Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are slyly pulling the strings that produce long, intricate articles about DeLay's overseas travels? Or that they orchestrated the three reprimands issued against DeLay last year by the Republican-chaired House ethics committee? Democrats should hope that Cantor and his comrades are this out of touch with reality. But while the DeLayists maintain a brave face in public, several House Democrats report that when they're in meetings with House Republicans and DeLay is mentioned, the Repubs shake their heads. It's not yet dead-man-walking time. But there seems to be a sentiment shared by Republicans that the U.S.S. DeLay cannot take on much more water than it already has. According to the Post, Republican aides have a daily morning conference call to trade intelligence on upcoming DeLay stories and to spin a response.

Not all GOPers are enthusiastically bailing out the water. On one of the Sunday chat shows, Sen. Rick Santorum, a fierce social conservative who has been tiptoeing left in preparation for what may be a difficult re-election campaign next year, said:

I think [DeLay] has to come forward and lay out what he did and why he did it and let the people then judge for themselves. But from everything I've heard—again, from the comments and responding to those—is everything he's done was according to the law. Now you may not like some of the things he's done. That's for the people of his district to decide, whether they want to approve that kind of behavior or not.

That's not quite a he's-my-man endorsement. Sen. John McCain also declined to race to DeLay's rescue, saying, " I don't know if he's become a liability to the Republican Party or not. I think that's a judgment that Republicans in the House and others will make." And Rep. Chris Shays, a moderate GOPer, has set himself up as the leader of a potential anti-DeLay coup. "Tom's conduct is hurting the Republican Party," Shays says, "is hurting this Republican majority, and it is hurting any Republican who is up for re-election." Heaven save Shays (from DeLay) should DeLay survive.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have both shied away from the vengeful get-those-judges remarks that DeLay and a few other GOPers have hurled after the Terri Schiavo case. This is no surprise, one recent poll showed that only 20 percent of Americans approved of the crusade DeLay led to involve Congress in the Schiavo controversy. Three-quarters did not. This same poll also showed that nearly 40 percent of American voters believe the religious right has too much sway over the Republican Party, while 18 percent said it did not, and that 55 percent of the public believes the Republicans want to use the federal government to interfere in the private lives of Americans. Such polling results will not cause Republican regulars to feel warm and fuzzy about DeLay.

As of now, it's impossible to predict DeLay's future. How many drips must come before the dike breaks? According to Newsweek , disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff (who's connected to DeLay's problematic junkets) has told colleagues there's more to come. And there are a variety of unreported DeLay allegations that reporters have been chasing for years that could spring to life if a source or two who believe that now is the time to turn on DeLay start to talk. But it was Bill Clinton who came up with the modern model for politicians rocked by scandal: If you can stomach it, just keep soldiering ahead and never accept the story line being peddled by your foes. Remember, it's much easier to drive someone from office than to remove him or her. So DeLay is whipping up his troops, telling them the fight is not about him but them-—which is what Clinton did during Whitewater and Monicagate. (No, I'm not comparing institutional corruption with a White House blow job, but a scandal is a scandal.)

The troops are saluting and marching to the barricades (or off the cliff). On Fox News, the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol praised DeLay: "It would be easier for him if he retreated. The fact is they hate him because he won't retreat, and I admire him for standing up for principle." Kristol also engaged in historical revisionism, arguing that DeLay is not now receiving the treatment that Republicans dished out to Democrats. "This notion…that in '94 the Republicans came to power by attacking the ethics of the House Democrats," Kristol maintained, "it's not true. It's not true. No one attacked Tom Foley. No one attacked Dick Gephardt. No one attacked George Mitchell." But the Newt-led Republicans did pave their path to power by vociferously assailing House Speaker Jim Wright. Their strategy was to blow up the House to save it from Democratic domination, and they dogged Wright on ethics charges. Republican aides also encouraged spreading the rumor that Foley was gay. And when the Republicans gained control of the House—and Newt Gingrich became mired in an ethics scandal—Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a leading GOPer, filed a tit-for-tat ethics complaint against Dick Gephardt, accusing him of violating banking and tax laws and providing false information on House financial disclosure forms. So Kristol got it wrong. The GOPers did their best to tar Democrat leaders. They just had less to work with. Gingrich ended up having to pay a $300,00 fine to the ethics committee; the Gephardt case was dismissed.

Back in those days, Gingrich, too, defended himself as the victim of ruthless partisan foes who went after him personally because they could not defeat his agenda. Being a martyr for ideology is a bitch. But it's better than being a disgraced felon. And that's the obvious course for DeLay. What's he going to do? Admit he has run a shakedown operation on Capitol Hill, in which corporate lobbyists pay him and other Republicans tribute—that is, campaign contributions and overseas trips—in return for much-prized access and legislative favors? Acknowledge he went too far in the Schiavo case and led the White House by the nose down a path of political trouble? Get real. He's positioning himself as this year's Mel Gibson: They're out to get me because I threaten them. And the conservatives are lining up for DeLay's lemmings express. Democrats ought to be delighted to see conservatives embrace DeLay as the embodiment of their movement. That way, if he falls, they will fall too.