Exit Tom DeLay

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

IT'S A MEASURE of Tom DeLay's diminished political circumstances that those most unhappy about his abandoning his House seat are the Democrats who most revile him. "This is probably the worst day of his campaign," Mr. DeLay, speaking on Fox News yesterday, said with an air of grim satisfaction of his Democratic opponent, former representative Nick Lampson. The Texas Republican had been repeatedly admonished by the House ethics committee; he is under indictment in Texas on charges of funneling illegal corporate contributions to state legislators; and he is entangled in a federal probe that has produced guilty pleas from two of his former staffers. It's much tougher for Democrats to flog their "culture of corruption" message when they can no longer kick around "Representative #2," as he's been identified in the charges against his former aides.

In truth, the DeLay reign ended in January, when Mr. DeLay permanently relinquished his position as majority leader. But his departure from the body in which he's served since 1985 offers a chance to reflect on Mr. DeLay's legacy for House Republicans -- and on the challenge that confronts them in the post-DeLay era. As New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks put it just before Mr. DeLay left the leadership, "the real problem wasn't DeLay, it was DeLayism." That was shorthand for a political culture that put a premium on bringing in campaign cash, that dismantled barriers between the Capitol and K Street lobbyists, and that disdained debate and dissent as the GOP entrenched itself as a would-be permanent majority.

DeLayism meant keeping a book on the partisan breakdown of political contributions from lobbyists labeled "friendly" and "unfriendly." It meant strong-arming a trade group not to hire a former Democratic congressman and enlisting Federal Aviation Administration officials to track down Democrats fleeing a vote in the Texas state legislature aimed at cementing Republicans' hold on the House. Mr. DeLay offered to endorse the son of retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) in exchange for Mr. Smith's vote in favor of the Medicare prescription drug bill. In Mr. DeLay's House, money was king: Members had to raise so much for chairmanships, so much for leadership posts. He presided over a sprawling financial empire of leadership PACs, nonprofit groups, charitable foundations and campaign committees that at least pushed the envelope of campaign finance laws, if not outright violating them, as Texas prosecutors allege.

Mr. DeLay in his heyday got a lot done, but at a terrible cost to the institution -- and, we would argue, the party -- that he helped lead. Will the new leadership be more respectful of the rights of the minority, more willing to permit debate on the House floor, more willing to restrict cushy travel and other perks? That's far from clear. The gushing statements yesterday from Mr. DeLay's replacement as leader, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) -- "one of the most effective and gifted leaders the Republican Party has ever known . . . has served our nation with integrity and honor" -- reflected not much embarrassment about Mr. DeLay, nor about DeLayism.

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