Saturday, January 07, 2006

DeLay and Delayism
A beautiful day here in Brooklyn just got even brighter:

WASHINGTON - Embattled Rep. Tom DeLay on Saturday abandoned his bid to remain as House majority leader, clearing the way for leadership elections among Republicans eager to shed the taint of scandal.

In a letter to rank-and-file Republicans, DeLay said, "I have always acted in an ethical manner."

At the same time, "I cannot allow our adversaries to divide and distract our attention," the Texas Republican wrote.

DeLay is battling campaign finance charges in Texas and was forced to step aside temporarily as majority leader last fall after he was charged in his home state. He has been trying to clear his name and, until Saturday, resume his leadership role.

In a separate letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert, DeLay said he intends to seek re-election to his House seat in November "while I work to clear my name of the baseless charges leveled against me."

DeLay's about-face came amid growing pressure from fellow Republicans who were concerned about their own political futures in the wake of this past week's guilty pleas by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
DeLay acted hours after a small vanguard of Republicans circulated a petition calling for leadership elections and citing DeLay's legal problems as well as his long ties to Abramoff.
"The developments with Abramoff have "brought home the fact that we need not just new leaders but a course correction," Flake said.

Rep. Heather Wilson (news, bio, voting record) of New Mexico, a perennial election-year target of Democrats, said she did not want DeLay to return as majority leader.

And GOP Rep. Jim Ramstad (news, bio, voting record) of Minnesota said, "It's clear that we need to elect a new majority leader to restore the trust and confidence of the American people."

It puts me in mind of the great scene toward the end of "GoodFellas," where Henry Hill is in the police station and the cops are checking out the evidence confiscated from his mistress's apartment. One cop sticks his finger in the caked white goop on a kitchen scale, brings it to his mouth, tastes it, and smiles wolfishly. Off-camera, his partner says to Henry, "Buh-bye, dickhead."

But let's not overdo it just yet. I'm guessing the recent polling that found Democrats with a record 49-36 advantage in generic congressional balloting has something to do with this. Also, it certainly doesn't mean that DeLay won't still be twisting arms and calling shots on key votes, as he continued to do after formally stepping down from his leadership post. (Though one would hope that the money he previously commanded--see below--in doing so has dried up enough to shrivel his powers.) And I'd still feel better about the party's chances to capitalize politically on DeLay's woes if leading Democrats connected the shit policy emanating from Congress to the systematic pay-for-play system that Hot Tub Tom has created (with lots of help from people like Abramoff, Norquist and Ralph Reed) over the last ten-plus years--though this could be my white-boy wonkitude and politically irrelevant reform fetish getting in the way of a dispassionate political judgment. (But then, ya gotta go with what ya know.)

Finally, Josh Marshall--who's been The Man on this story for years now--is absolutely right that a Congress producing "DeLayism without DeLay" really offers little more, aside from aesthetic value, than what we've seen since the mid-'90s. His hope is that the collatoral damage done by these scandals, and their impact in waking up the press that there's a very compelling story here about how our government functions, has rendered this impossible:

One of the great questions of the last decade is how congressional Republicans managed to maintain such unprecedented party discipline. The standard answer is that that's how Tom DeLay earned his nickname 'The Hammer', by squashing anyone who threatened to get out of line. Only that's not really quite how the House GOP Caucus functioned. Notwithstanding the reputation DeLay liked to cultivate, he worked a lot more with Carrots than Sticks. And that means money. Lots and lots and lots of money. A lot of it unaccountable money; a lot of it 'don't ask where it came from' money; but lots and lots of money, and as long as you were there with the caucus on the important votes, a lot of it would be yours.

You can't understand the K Street Project or the sort of slush fund Jack Abramoff was running without understanding that Tom DeLay had built a very effective patronage machine -- one that organized a great deal of the money in the city in the hands of the political leadership.

Most people now think that the Abramoff indictments effectively end any realistic hope for DeLay to reclaim the leadership. So the question is whether you end up with DeLayism without DeLay -- the same money and machine, just under a new boss.

On the one hand, you have acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt, who ants to push DeLay aside and claim the post for himself. But Blunt is a DeLay Man through and through, part of the machine in every way. On the other hand, you've got rebels who just don't think the GOP can get out from under these scandals without a real change in leadership and direction.

That's the fight the Post article talks about. But a big part of what's happening now isn't just which leadership slate takes over the House GOP Caucus. At a deeper level, the Abramoff scandal may do so much damage to the machine DeLay built -- by knocking out key leaders, exposing illegality and 'legal' corruption -- that whomever comes out on top may not be able to run the place with anything like the party discipline DeLay managed during his years in power.

At the risk of getting all metaphyiscal, though, let me suggest another trememndous benefit of DeLay's resignation from the leadership (and hopefully his retirement or defeat as he runs for another term this year). As regular readers know, my great fear throughout the last three years especially, since Republicans retook the Senate and imposed one-party rule with unmatched partisan fury, was that the political immune system the Founders bequeathed was under potentially fatal attack from the virus of Republican hyper-partisanism.

I don't think it's too much to say that the explicit objective of people like Karl Rove, Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist was to subjugate the system of checks and balances designed to produce utilitarian governance--to overthrow the sentiment James Madison expressed in The Federalist No. 51 when he wrote "Ambition must be made to counter ambition." In the one-party context, so long as goods--money, power, prestige--were spread around in an effective way, there was much less risk of a president vetoing legislation that served little purpose other than rewarding interest groups. Or the Senate rejecting judicial appointments made to advance a specific and articulated ideological agenda that might transgress the Constitution. Or, for that matter, the Supreme Court invalidating legislation or placing restrictions on the power of the executive. The whole Republican project was to align partisan ambitions, lubricating differences with a big campaign check here, a sinecure there, a symbolic gesture somewhere else, and a steady stream of policy that rewarded friends and punished enemies.

The ultimate check, though, rests with the voters. Someone evidently made a determination that holding onto DeLay raised an unacceptable risk of eroding the power base that makes "DeLayism," which is as good a name for this whole arrangement as any, possible in the first place. But while the most odious champion of that system has been knocked down (not even out), we have to keep in mind that the assault on Constitutional governance continues.

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