Hammer blows

GOP leaders paid their last respects to the fallen House leader -- then fled the press. But Democrats want to talk about Tom DeLay until November.


Michael Scherer
April 5, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)

The leaders of the Republican Congress -- aka the House that Tom DeLay built -- gathered Tuesday afternoon in a crowded Capitol hallway outside Speaker Dennis Hastert's office to pay their last respects. "Tom DeLay has been a great friend and ally, and he will be missed," said Rules Committee chairman David Dreier of California. "We owe him a great deal of gratitude," Majority Leader John Boehner said. "Tom DeLay clearly is a politician who has been driven by ideals," said Majority Whip Roy Blunt.

The men stood before a half dozen television cameras and more than 20 print reporters, who had squeezed into a space as wide as an elevator for a press conference. The event had been advertised as a chance to question Hastert and others about the issues of the day, including immigration and the budget. But Hastert was a no-show, which should have tipped off the press that something was amiss. The resignation of Rep. Tom DeLay, it seemed, had thrown the leadership for a loop. The business of Congress could not continue as planned.

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After eulogizing their fallen colleague, the remaining Republican leaders offered a few bland words about the work ahead. Then, before a single question could be asked, Rep. Boehner announced abruptly, "Thank you, all." The leadership of the nation's largest deliberative body turned in unison and fled down the hallway, as the press corps jeered. "Wait a minute, fellas," one reporter called after them. "What's the point? What's going on here? What about the questions?"

There would be no questions. Perhaps it was a show of respect. The king had fallen, and now he needed to be mourned. "I am grieved at the loss of a great champion of the values I hold dear," said Rick Scarborough, a Baptist minister who recently compared DeLay's plight to the crucifixion of Christ. "The House Republican Conference is losing a powerful conservative voice," declared Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, who is leading the Republican effort to maintain control of the House in 2006.

Just two months ago, Reynolds had gathered journalists in the conference room of the National Republican Congressional Committee to tell America that DeLay was indestructible. "Tom DeLay is going to win his election," he told reporters on Jan. 27. But on Monday, DeLay told Time magazine that he was no longer sure he could pull off a victory. "This had become a referendum on me," DeLay said. "So it's better for me to step aside."

Much has changed in 67 days. According to a recent Gallup Poll, the share of Americans satisfied with the direction of the country has dropped from 35 to 29 percent, the lowest level since November 1994, when Republicans won control of the Congress. At the same time, federal prosecutors have been tightening the noose on some of DeLay's top operators. Two former aides, Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy, have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in a corruption probe. Meanwhile, Jack Abramoff, who DeLay once called one of his "closest and dearest friends," has been meeting regularly with prosecutors, after pleading guilty in January to conspiring to corrupt public officials.

On Friday, DeLay received a new nickname from the Justice Department in a court filing: "Representative #2." To date, DeLay has not been accused of any crime in connection with Abramoff, though he awaits trial in Texas on unrelated money-laundering charges. But court documents clearly indicate that his actions are being investigated, both for his role in a shady nonprofit tied to Abramoff, the U.S. Family Network, and for his role in a junket to Britain in 2000 that Abramoff organized.

As DeLay's problems have compounded in recent weeks, speculation swirled through Republican circles about his pending collapse. "This was no surprise," Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Arizona Republican, told Salon Tuesday night. "This was rumored a while ago." Flake, who has clashed with DeLay in the past, is one of the few Republicans in Congress who have openly chafed under the free-spending, dictatorial ways of the former majority leader's rule. He says he is hopeful that reform might come, now that DeLay had been replaced by Boehner, but he points out that the rest of the Republican leadership is still controlled by DeLay's hand-picked team. "It's frustrating," Flake said. "I can tell you Boehner is frankly our only help there."

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Democrats spent the day Tuesday attempting to focus the public's attention on DeLay's many acolytes in Congress who carry on his legacy. "Mr. DeLay's departure from Congress is just one piece of the chain that is necessary to end the culture of corruption," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a Tuesday afternoon press conference that did allow for questions from reporters. "This isn't just about Tom DeLay, although he is the ringleader. It is about the Republicans in Congress who have enabled and have benefited from his corruption."

Democratic strategists, meanwhile, have promised to keep DeLay's name alive through November, when voters go to the polls. "You have to understand, Abramoff, Scanlon and Tony Rudy are the spring training before the main season," said Simon Rosenberg, who runs the New Democrat Network, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington. "This thing is going to get much, much worse." Democratic political consultants, party leaders and pollsters are all coaching their candidates to unite behind a single message -- one that ties Republican corruption to the American unhappiness with Republican accomplishments on issues like gas prices, national security and healthcare.

"There are two kinds of corruption," explained Steve Murphy, a prominent consultant to several Democratic House and Senate candidates. "There is individual corruption, which has tainted DeLay. And there is also institutional corruption, for which DeLay is the poster child."

Accusations of corruption have tainted other Republicans, and given their few degrees of separation, DeLay's demise won't provide a boost. Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, whom prosecutors have accused of direct involvement in Abramoff's conspiracy, faces an increasingly uphill reelection battle, according to pollsters. Likewise, Richard Pombo, a seven-term representative from California who has been tied to Abramoff's Indian casino clients, received support for his reelection bid from less than a third of his district, according to a poll conducted last year.

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A recent poll in Georgia found that Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and a White House advisor, could be a drag on the state's Republican ticket because of his ties to Abramoff. If Reed is on the ticket as a candidate for lieutenant governor, 26 percent of the state's Republicans said they would be less likely to reelect Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, compared with 18 percent who said they would be more likely.

That poll was conducted by Matt Towery, a consultant who once worked for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Towery knows intimately how quickly voter sentiment can change in a close election. In 1994, he was at Gingrich's side as they plotted a takeover of the House, which had been in Democratic control for decades. "We didn't realize that we had a full shot of taking Congress until a week before the election," Towery said. "When this sort of stuff happens, it happens in a heartbeat."

For his part, Gingrich seems to agree, suggesting that public policy blunders have set the conditions for a reversal of the 1994 GOP gains in the House. "We could lose control this fall," Gingrich told Knight Ridder reporters last week.

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But those with the most to lose from the current shift in political winds, the GOP leadership in Congress, are staying mum. Given a chance to reassure their constituents Tuesday, Hastert hid from the cameras, and the rest of the leadership turned their backs and silently walked away as reporters shouted their questions. It was, perhaps, an appropriate homage to DeLay, who made his name as a political mastermind by doing his best work out of public view.

Their leader may be gone, but he is not soon forgotten.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Corley.

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Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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