The Dispensable Man

By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
Friday, September 30, 2005

Back when clouds began to gather around Tom DeLay, a White House source warned that the loss of "The Hammer" would be catastrophic. "It would be complete and total chaos," the source explained. "The House would descend into 'Lord of the Flies.' "

That's possible, but not likely, as the quick replacement of DeLay by his erstwhile sidekick, Roy Blunt, suggests. Commentators love personalities, especially ones as colorful as Tom DeLay's. But politics is also about building organizations, institutions and networks. And over the past 15 years, the Republicans have worked at the grass-roots and national levels to recruit and fund ultraconservative candidates and shift the electoral playing field in their favor. In Washington they have sought to build strong alliances with moneyed interests and perfect techniques to shield their most vulnerable members from public backlash -- all with remarkable success.

DeLay is one of the most important architects of this new power structure, but he's not essential to its continuance. Grover Norquist -- head of the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform and another key GOP power broker -- recently joked that if a bus ran him over, someone else could easily step into his place and assume his role and relationships. Some might see this as false modesty, but Norquist is right.

The same conclusion applies to DeLay. His role is crucial not because of who he is but because of where he sits -- at the intersection of money, organization and influence. What Tom DeLay does is vital. Tom DeLay himself is not.

Indeed, the GOP majority has repeatedly moved quickly -- once it decided to move -- to throw a discredited leader overboard and replace him with the person best placed to play the same part. DeLay joins the ranks of Gingrich, Armey, Lott and Livingston -- leaders who have capsized without causing more than a ripple. Despite speculation that the GOP is splitting between "moderates" and "hard conservatives," House Republicans are likely to coalesce rapidly around the new leadership.

After all, the defining characteristic of the House GOP since 1994 has been its coordination. Defying all precedent in modern American politics, Republicans have operated as a near-parliamentary party. They have given the leadership enormous control over the legislative agenda, over the party's message, over committee assignments, and over the crafting of legislation.

This has been possible in large part because hard-core conservatives constitute the overwhelming majority of the Republican Party in the House. But it's also been possible because the system has delivered. The GOP's electoral margins have been razor thin, but coordination has enabled Republicans to consolidate power and patronage, to pursue an extremely conservative agenda with surprising (though not unlimited) success, and to protect loyal members.

The examples are endless, but two suggest the whole. The Republican leaders play a game called "catch and release," in which they allow moderate Republicans to vote against conservative GOP legislation, thereby burnishing their reputations for "independence" -- but only once it's clear that the leadership has a majority. Along with their Senate compatriots, House leaders have also perfected their use of conference committees (which are supposed to "merge" House and Senate bills) to shift legislation to the right and then slam it through Congress on an up-or-down vote.

Like DeLay, Blunt has been a major player in a key part of this new regime: the aggressive effort of GOP leaders to induce powerful private interests to work with and through them. In tandem with the White House, the leadership has encouraged major elements of the Republican coalition -- both politicians and organized interests -- to act as a team. Cooperation with the leadership is the price of access.

Not all of these efforts have been successful, but they've increased the willingness of key groups to cooperate with the GOP, which has enhanced the ability of Republican leaders to deliver the goods.

This edifice of power looks more vulnerable today than at any time in the past decade. But the House Republican leadership won't go down without a fight. Roy Blunt is a product and an experienced practitioner of contemporary GOP politics, and his rise to power promises more of the same. House Republicans may be ready to dump their beloved dance partner, but they aren't likely to change their steps.

Jacob S. Hacker, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is an associate professor of political science at Yale University. Paul Pierson is a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. They are the authors of "Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy."


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