When you allow yourself to dream about news like this, it's usually accompanied by church bells and a halo, perhaps a rainbow and the clearing of storm clouds -- something to mark the glorious dawning of a new day. Instead, the news hit suddenly tonight, upturning everything when one least expected it: "I'm going to announce tomorrow that I'm not running for reelection and that I'm going to leave Congress," Rep. Tom DeLay told Time magazine on Monday. DeLay has already notified President Bush and some members of Congress of his plans; he'll hold a news conference on Tuesday to make it official, and says that he is likely to leave office in May. Texas GOP officials would then need to find another Republican to run against Democrat Nick Lampson, the former congressman who had been mounting a tough challenge to DeLay.
DeLay gave two interviews on Monday to announce his intentions -- one to Time and one to the Galveston County Daily News. Each outlet cites the same reason for his departure: DeLay's reelection campaign recently scrutinized internal polls and determined that there was a good chance that the congressman could lose his seat to Lampson. "Luckily there were more people that loved me than hated me," DeLay told the newspaper of what the polls revealed about his district. "Even though I thought I could win, it was a little too risky." DeLay told Time that he had "a little bit better than a 50/50 chance of winning reelection," but that another Republican without his baggage -- the indictment and the lingering ethical questions, not to mention the fact that so many people just plain hate the man -- would easily win against Lampson. "There's no reason to risk a seat," he told Time. "This is a very strong Republican district. It's obvious to me that anybody but me running here will overwhelmingly win the seat."
As to those ethical inquiries, even in defeat DeLay was as self-satisfied as ever. "You can't prove to me one thing that I have done for my own personal gain," he said. "Yes, I play golf. I'm very proud of the fact that I play golf. It's the only thing that I do for myself. And when you go to a country and you're there for seven days and you take an afternoon off to play golf, what does the national media write? All about the golf, not about the meeting that I went to. I'm not ashamed of anything I've done. I've never done anything in my political career for my own personal gain. You can look at my bank account and my house to understand that."
To the Galveston News, DeLay admitted one regret -- that other people had not lived up to his high expectations. "I regret having people on my staff who I trusted who have disappointed me," DeLay said. (Two former DeLay associates, Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, have pleaded guilty in the corruption scandal connected to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.)
As for what happens now, DeLay appeared upbeat. For one thing, he said he's sure that his seat will remain in the GOP's hands, and that his departure also makes it more difficult for Democrats to make this year's congressional races a referendum on DeLay's bad behavior. "I imagine that this is the worst news he could get," DeLay told the Galveston News, referring to Lampson. "He is going to have to tell people what he is for ... I would assume, being the realist I am, that Mr. Lampson is going to have a hard time keeping this a national race."
DeLay also insisted that he's not likely to face any legal trouble, even though the Justice Department is investigating his role in the Abramoff matter. "I paid lawyers to investigate me as if they were prosecuting me," he told Time. "They found nothing. There is absolutely nothing -- no connection with Jack Abramoff that is illegal, dishonest, unethical or against the House rules." Richard Cullen, an attorney on DeLay's team, told the magazine that he recently reviewed 1,000 e-mail messages from DeLay's office computers that have been turned over to the government. "They were everything we felt related to the Abramoff investigation," DeLay said. "None are from DeLay. They're from staffers, showing their give and take with Abramoff. There was nothing that I said to myself or DeLay, 'Wow, this is really bad for him.'"
DeLay said he'll now work hard to promote right-wing causes and politicians. "I can continue to be a leader of the conservative cause," he told the Galveston News. "I can do more to grow the Republican majority, rather than spend the next eight months locked down in running a campaign."
It isn't clear, though, whether DeLay yet understands how radioactive he is. More than any other Republican, he has come to symbolize the routine abuse of power that now epitomizes how Washington works; George W. Bush is disastrously incompetent, but Tom DeLay may be something even worse -- he was disastrously competent, a man so adept at fusing money, religion, power and meanness that, at his height, you had to wonder whether anything could ever bring him down.
Now the fall has come. And for observers with an eye for irony, the thing that did him in speaks volumes: In 2003, Tom DeLay spearheaded the plan to gerrymander Texas' congressional districts in order to give Republicans more seats in the House. As Jeffrey Toobin has pointed out, the plan pushed five more Republicans into Congress, but at a cost to DeLay -- his own district became significantly more blue. It's only because of that effort that Lampson -- who lost his House seat in a neighboring district after the 2003 gerrymandering -- is at all competitive in DeLay's district now.
In the interviews, DeLay appeared to believe that his resignation marks the end of his time in the sun, that now we'll all forget about how ugly his reign in the House was. But if he thinks that we won't have Tom DeLay to kick around anymore, he's probably wrong. It's not just that the investigations and the recriminations will continue; despite his claims of innocence, more troubling news is sure to come spilling out. The bigger problem is the long term.
"I don't care what history writes," DeLay told Time. That's good for him because history won't treat Tom DeLay kindly.