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Washington: Where You Can Win for Losing

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; 8:17 AM

In a town known for clichés, one of the biggest is blaming a liberal or conservative political conspiracy for your troubles.

Besieged by reports of unethical behavior, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay advised a group of Republican senators last week to change the subject by suggesting to reporters that he is merely the victim of Democrats who are trying to avert attention from their lack of an agenda.

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Conservative columnist Bob Novak advanced the conspiracy theory in his April 11 column by citing an e-mail from a New York Times editorial page staffer to former congressman Bob Livingston (R-La.), who resigned in 1998 amid a burgeoning sex scandal, that encouraged Livingston to write an op-ed critical of DeLay. "The Democratic establishment and left-wing activists have targeted DeLay as the way to end a decade of Republican control of the House," Novak wrote.

There you have it. The New York Times editorial page's effort to influence politics is proof of a vast left-wing conspiracy to destroy a congressman who has five ethics strikes against him -- three admonishments, one rebuke and one warning from the bi-partisan House Ethics Committee. All of the ethics actions against DeLay have been unanimous among the committee's five Republicans and five Democrats.

DeLay's political associates, including aides and former staffers, have also been the target of investigations by a Democratic district attorney in Texas -- as well as two Senate committees, the Justice Department, the Interior Department and the Internal Revenue Service. So, apparently, not only are the Republican members of the Ethics Committee a part of the liberal conspiracy, but so are the Bush administration officials who are pursing allegations of influence that all lead to DeLay. DeLay has not been the primary target of any of these investigations, but he has been connected to all of them. For DeLay's defenders, this volume of investigation translates to coordinated victimization.

In Washington, playing the victim card is a proven strategy for firing up your base, putting your critics on the defensive and, at a minimum, buying some time.

Just ask former Democratic House speaker Jim Wright.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a fiery congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, and his followers made names for themselves by attacking the Democratic Party, then a majority in the House, as hopelessly corrupt and unethical. But the ball really didn't get rolling until May 18, 1988, when Common Cause, the non-partisan campaign finance watchdog group then led by Fred Wertheimer, filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee against Wright.

Wertheimer's complaint led to a torrent of news coverage, including a story in The Washington Post by Tom Kenworthy, who wrote in his lead paragraph that the Common Cause complaint "promises to lend credibility to conservative Republican accusations of improprieties by the speaker and which could prove an election-year embarrassment for the Democratic Party."

The news media gobbled up the Wright story and helped create the pressure that led to his resignation. (Howard Kurtz gave a brief run-down of the Post's coverage from that scandal in his column on Thursday.

Wright responded to the Common Cause complaint and the media coverage by doing what liberal politicians do here in Washington. He suggested a cabal of conservative meannies were out to get him.

"Common Cause has made itself the handmaiden of a partisan political initiative," Wright complained in a press release the day Wertheimer filed his group's complaint. Eventually, however, Wright resigned.

In the wake of the Wright scandal DeLay joined with his colleagues in asserting during a debate over the Government Ethics Reform Act that the bill would "strengthen and clarify existing House rules," according to a recent Common Cause citation of Congressional Record. "Issues such as the ban on congressional honoraria, limits on gifts and travel, increased financial disclosure, restrictions on outside income, and conflict of interest rules will all be tightened to reflect the growing and changing role of Government service. . . . It is my hope that honor will be restored to elected offices so that we can continue to work for the values that we have fought for in the past with quality representation in the future."

Wertheimer, once part of the Grand Conspiracy of Conservative Meanies, is now being accused by DeLay and his supporters of being part of the the Grand Conspiracy of Liberal Meanies. DeLay is defending himself from ethics charges by using the same deflection strategy as Wright, while simultaneously seeking to undo the very reforms he helped put in place 15 years ago.

"Mr. Wertheimer always points out that he brought one action against Hillary Clinton," DeLay huffed on NBC's Meet the Press on Dec. 21, 2003, sounding eerily like a right-wing version of Wright. "He's been in his leftist business for, I don't know, 20 or 30 years. Most of his actions are after Republicans. And he's a leftist organization."

Wertheimer, who left Common Cause and now runs non-partisan watchdog group Democracy 21, says he has filed more complaints against Democrats than Republicans. Other than Wright, he's gone after former House majority whip Tony Coelho, the Keating Five (four of whom were Democrats), former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Al Gore, and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe.

"I think people in the country have far less problems sorting though what's going on here than some people here in Washington, where charges of partisanship have become a way of life," Wertheimer said. "When you clear all the smoke away, you have specific cases where you have ethics rules that have been violated and there needs to be a determination of whether Rep. DeLay did violate rules."

I'd guess that 99.99 percent of the country has no clue who Wertheimer is, or his role in the Wright imbroglio. Few probably recall the media frenzy over the Wright allegations. So it is almost as if the "liberal" charges are being made in a vacuum, with the news media doing little to put the story in context for people who don't live, breathe and eat politics.

The short term memory of Washington politicians and reporters allows powerful people accused of wrongdoing to roll out the time-tested debate tactic of changing the subject and putting the accuser on the defensive.

In Republican-dominated Washington, if a reporter has the gall to question you about possible abuse of power, call him a liberal. If a government watchdog accuses you of violating the public's trust, call her a liberal.

"Anyone that is being remotely honest with themselves can see that the mainstream media is an absolutely liberal institution," writes conservative radio talk show host Neal Boortz in a recent blog entry defending DeLay. "From polls that show the majority of reporters always vote for Democrats to studies of their broadcasts . . . the evidence is overwhelming. The left can protest the idea all it wants . . . but the leftist bias in our mainstream media is patently obvious and overwhelming."

Boortz doesn't explain how his theory fits in to the media frenzies surrounding Wright and years later, Bill Clinton. One should never let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.

Among the talking points being used by DeLay's supporters is the fact that several of the government watchdog groups that have filed ethics complaints against DeLay have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from noted Bush-hater, billionaire George Soros.

Wertheimer's Democracy 21 has accepted about $300,000 from Soros's Open Society Institute, his critics say. That's a fair point. But it would also have been fair to point out that Soros's largess has not stopped Democracy 21 from filing ethics complaints about two left-leaning, anti-Bush 527 groups last year that Soros had funded to the tune of $20 million. It also would be fair to point out that Wertheimer is spending lots of money and time advocating the "The 527 Reform Act of 2005" which would make illegal the sort of large contributions that Soros made to 527 groups last year.

Whatever the case, Tom DeLay is not completly paranoid. Yes, there are liberals in this world. Yes, there are people in Washington and in the national media who would do cartwheels down Pennsylvania Avenue to see him brought down. But that's always the case in Washington. Maybe, just maybe, Gingrich and DeLay were trying to run Wright out of town not only because they were good-government crusaders, but because they thought it would help their party.

This is why leaders are held to higher standards than back-benchers in Congress. Truth is the ultimate defense. Gingrich and Sen. Rick Santorum have both said DeLay should stand up and explain himself. If he's done nothing wrong and that's the truth, then the truth -- not victimization -- will set Tom DeLay free.

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