Being Tom DeLay means never having to say you're sorry. So when the embattled House majority leader apologized Wednesday for the "inartful" way in which he attacked the federal judiciary after Terri Schiavo's death, it was the surest indicator that DeLay's days are numbered.
DeLay is not in trouble because Democrats are trying to get rid of him. On the contrary, Democrats would like nothing better than to have a weakened DeLay right where he is at least through the 2006 elections. That's why Republicans are so nervous.
(David J. Phillip -- AP)
For years Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to make DeLay a symbol of the Republican Party's iron control of the House, of big-money fundraising and influence peddling, of what the Democrats see as extremism on social issues.
But DeLay was not a big deal for most voters until he blasted himself across the nation's front pages with his lead role in the Schiavo case and his outbursts against federal judges: "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
As one influential House Democrat put it, "DeLay did for us something we could never accomplish ourselves. He made himself a household name."
And having done so, DeLay set himself up as a target within his own party. It is not just moderate Republicans such as Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut who are raising questions about DeLay's tenure. Many at the heart of the conservative movement now have doubts about the Texas Republican's conduct, his ability to lead -- or, most devastatingly, both.
The leading indicators of conservative opinion are starting to weigh in against him. The Wall Street Journal editorial page said last month that DeLay has an "odor" about him -- "an unsavory whiff that could have GOP loyalists reaching for the political Glade if it gets any worse." To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, the Wall Street Journal criticizing DeLay is like L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican organ, criticizing the pope.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch said flatly on Wednesday that "DeLay Must Go" to "break the cycle of sleaze." The Times-Dispatch, which strongly endorsed President Bush last year, can hardly be seen as the voice of a left-wing conspiracy.
The Democrats' decision to take on DeLay is frequently compared to Newt Gingrich's assault on the ethics of former House speaker Jim Wright. By forcing Wright to resign in 1989, Gingrich eventually propelled himself to the speakership.
The metaphor is apt for more than the obvious reasons. As Gingrich acknowledged, he opposed Wright in part because he saw the Texas Democrat as an impressive politician. Gingrich once said that Wright had the potential to "become the greatest speaker since Henry Clay" and warned his party that if "Wright consolidates his power, he will be a very, very formidable man."
As long as Democrats saw Wright in this light, his survival chances were high. DeLay's current hopes are identical. The one thing Republicans have known about DeLay up to now is that he's been a hugely successful party leader. DeLay's strategy, like Wright's, is to dismiss all attacks as partisan assaults on his effectiveness. "I'm not here to discuss the Democrats' agenda," DeLay grumbled on Wednesday.
The emphasis on fidelity to strong leadership worked for Wright -- but only for a while. One of Wright's loyalists, former representative Charles Wilson, condemned "yellow-belly, turncoat" Democrats who questioned Wright's ethics. Wilson made his comment on April 14, 1989. Six weeks later Wright announced his resignation. Over time, Gingrich's attacks so weakened Wright that Democrats wearied of defending him and came to see him more as liability than asset.
DeLay has one thing going for him that Wright did not: Politics is now even more ferociously partisan than it was in 1989. That means that DeLay can enforce party discipline to a degree Wright could never hope to manage. The growth of a new conservative opinion industry means that "yellow-belly turncoats" inside the GOP face assault not only from their colleagues but also from partisan commentators, talk show hosts and Web sites.
But DeLay made another critical error that may reduce the effectiveness even of this vast machinery. He chose to assail judges at the very moment when his Republican colleagues in the Senate are preparing for a showdown over the filibustering of Bush's judicial appointments. The last thing Senate Republican leaders need now is to have to defend not only their "nuclear option," but also Tom DeLay.
That explains why even DeLay was forced to say he was sorry. It explains why Republican solidarity is falling apart. And it explains why it will take a miracle for Tom DeLay to survive.