Standing by their man

Conservatives may worry privately about the scandal-plagued majority leader, but publicly they're denying he did anything wrong and blaming the "liberal media."

Published April 8, 2005 9:38PM (EDT)

There are bad weeks in politics, and then there's the week Tom DeLay is having. The House majority leader has been the subject of potentially damaging investigative stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times. Another top Republican backed away from DeLay's hair-raising comments that sounded like a call to arms against federal judges. DeLay's approval ratings have tanked to embarrassing depths and a new personal low as House leader. But as the news worsens for DeLay, Republicans are adamantly -- at least publicly -- standing by him and are marshaling the troops to his defense.

DeLay dismisses new ethics questions this week as purely partisan muckraking by the "liberal media," and for now, the conservative establishment is marching lockstep behind him. To Republicans, their House leader is indeed facing a leftist crucible. And the more they see DeLay as "attacked," the more conservatives seemingly wish to stand by him.

"When you look at the attacks on [DeLay], there is no there there," says Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, comparing DeLay's ethics controversy with the House impeachment trial of Bill Clinton -- of which then-Republican whip DeLay was the prime instigator. "This is exactly what the Republicans did in 1998. You don't have an issue, you don't have a policy, and go out and play sack the quarterback. For taking on Clinton, it turned out to be a pretty stupid policy. It's attacking a person for extraneous things."

Conservatives are determined not to let DeLay go down the path of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is certainly on conservatives' minds these last few days. Where Gingrich was eventually forced to resign after ethical inquiries and lost House seats in 1998, Republicans refuse to let DeLay fall by the same political wayside. "It's clear this is an effort to not only wound Tom DeLay personally but take down the conservative agenda in the House by taking out one of its leaders," said Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union. "What we intend to do is shore up support. We want the House Republicans to know the conservative movement stands behind Tom DeLay." The American Conservative Union and other leading conservative groups plan a banquet in support of DeLay for next month.

None of this surprises Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and a longtime observer of Beltway politics. "I think that conservatives are going to stick by DeLay. Number one, they see this as an attack by the liberal media to destroy their guy. They tend to discount the credibility of anything that is in the mainstream media.

"Even in a back room, the guy who stands up and says Tom DeLay has to go, they are going to have the biggest balls in town," Cook said. "DeLay is their guy. He's the guy that a lot of Republican House members, I don't know if they love him but they sure as hell fear him. [DeLay's] going to be dead and cold before they turn on him."

Privately, of course, Republicans are fretting, wondering if there is a point where DeLay will hurt more than he helps. They may ultimately decide that he does hurt more -- but they're not there yet. "I think if this is death by a thousand cuts, DeLay has a couple hundred more before he's dead," Cook added.

Among those "cuts": The Washington Post reported Wednesday that a six-day trip by DeLay in 1997 to Moscow "was underwritten" by a nonprofit lobbying on behalf of Russian economic interests. (For DeLay to be investigated for violating House ethics rules, which forbid registered lobbyists and foreign agents to fund representatives' travel, a Republican would have to support the probe.) Also on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that DeLay's wife and daughter had been paid more than $500,000 by political action committees working on his behalf since 2001. While employing one's family is legal, as well as common, the Times pointed out that the funding was "unusually generous."

DeLay is not new to the hot seat. In 2004, the majority leader was admonished three times for House ethics violations. Currently, the Indian Affairs Committee and the Justice Department are investigating two lobbyists close to DeLay for receiving more than $25 million to lobby on behalf of Indian tribes.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Texas continue to investigate political associates of DeLay. A Houston district attorney has charged three fundraisers close to DeLay with illegally utilizing corporate contributions to fund Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature. The three fundraisers were central figures in the two political action committees that helped DeLay lead Texas Republicans to redraw congressional districts in 2002. The redrawing of House races in 2002, which led Texas Democrats to flee the state at one point to stall legislation, allowed Republicans to gain five congressional seats in Texas in 2004.

Without DeLay's shrewd efforts, the House would be under Democratic control, albeit marginally. GOP House members, as well as the conservative establishment, believe it owes DeLay. "The Hammer," as he is called, has come to embody hardball politics. Whether certain representatives privately fret the detrimental effect he may have on 2006 House races, Republican dedication runs deep. "He's the poster boy for conservatives in the House," Lessner added. "He's a bare-knuckled politician. He doesn't have a lot of friends outside conservative circles. That's true. He's effective," Lessner said.

In the past, Republicans have gone to extreme lengths to protect DeLay. In November, House Republicans amended a rule that barred lawmakers from taking leadership positions if he or she was under indictment for a crime that carried a prison term of at least two years. Concerned that the majority leader was going to be indicted in Texas, the GOP House caucus shielded Delay's post. Most House Republicans publicly dismissed the Texas investigation surrounding DeLay as partisan. Soon after, following the widely criticized rules change (some Republicans even broke ranks), the GOP reversed course. Instead, Republicans have made it easier to block congressional ethics investigations.

This week, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed DeLay with a 27 percent favorable rating, the lowest since he became majority leader. A Houston Chronicle poll released Sunday found that 45 percent of voters intend now to vote for an alternative candidate, while 63 percent of Republicans said they would again support DeLay (78 percent said they supported DeLay in 2004). DeLay's new public opinion lows are less a result of the ethics questions, though, than an aftershock of efforts by the Republicans in Washington to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, which multiple polls showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed. After Schiavo's death, DeLay, in typically blunt fashion, threatened those judges that ignored congressional efforts to reinsert the feeding tube. "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior," he declared. But other leading Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist this week, and even Dick Cheney, distanced themselves from those remarks.

As DeLay faces increased scrutiny over questions of ethics and extremism, the comparisons to Newt Gingrich's downfall are inevitable. In 1994, Gingrich came to define the Republican House surge, where the GOP gained 52 seats and took control of the House for the first time in four decades. Like DeLay, Gingrich was given a large share of the credit for the Republican success. By 1995, Gingrich was speaker of the House and a force in Washington. But three years later, already damaged by the House impeachment of Clinton and an ethics admonishment, Gingrich resigned in 1998, after the Republicans' worst showing in three decades.

Providing the majority leader is not indicted in Texas, political analysts believe DeLay will hold his post. If Republicans don't "sweep him out," Democrats will continue to rally against the majority leader. Republicans will likely only ditch DeLay, Beltway analysts say, if the steady drip of scandal begins to drown GOP candidates nationwide. But, to be sure, the drip is getting harder to ignore. "What I get is a sense that there is a growing belief that DeLay is becoming a problem," said Stu Rothenberg, the editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "It's not that they want to get rid of him; it's not that they aren't grateful for all he's done or see him as an important player in the majority; it's just that they are starting to believe, as much of an asset as he is, he's also become that much more of an liability."

To push key Republicans to conclude that DeLay is indeed a liability, the liberal Public Campaign Action Fund is placing advertising in the districts of the GOP's Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, Thomas Reynolds of New York; the House Ethics Committee chairman, Doc Hastings of Washington; and Rob Simmons of Connecticut, a moderate. Other critical advertising is running in Washington as well as in DeLay's home district in Houston. But Republicans will do some shrewd calculus before giving up their loyalty to Tom DeLay.

Since 1994, one of Delay's political action committees, Americans for a Republican Majority, has contributed about $4.2 million to Republican congressional and presidential candidates, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. For DeLay to resign, it may take a costly Republican defeat in 2006, as it did for Gingrich seven years ago. "Gingrich lost his speakership because the atmospherics of scandal that had been created around him caused the Republicans in the House to abandon him," the American Conservative Union's Lessner insisted. "We are not going to stand by and watch that happen again with regard to Tom DeLay."

By David Paul Kuhn

David Paul Kuhn is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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