GOP Looks to DeLay in 2000 Elections
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 1999; Page K1
The white baseball cap on display in House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's office is emblazoned with a simple phrase in bold blue writing: "TOM DELAY 2000."
Not even the Texas Republican's most staunch allies think DeLay ought to be making a run for the White House. But the hat, brought back from the California GOP state convention, demonstrates how much his high-profile role in promoting the impeachment of President Clinton has made him a folk hero among conservatives.
"Republican activists have come to know Tom DeLay as a conservative fighter, someone you can count on for leadership," said Deputy Whip John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), who bought DeLay the hat. "When [he] catches on a bit more, I would think you're talking about someone with a national following and image along the lines of Newt Gingrich."
It is well established by now that DeLay is the House Republicans' consummate behind-the-scenes operator, chief vote counter, patronage dispenser and money man. But in recent months, DeLay has quietly taken on another, far more powerful, and potentially more crucial, role: the GOP's primary messenger to the faithful.
In effect, DeLay is using his fiery rhetoric and aggressive style to reenergize the Republican Party's conservative wing and to reassure this core constituency that its issues are being taken seriously in Washington. Not since Gingrich abruptly stepped down as speaker in November has any Republican reached out with such intensity and to such potential effect.
DeLay is now viewed by many House Republicans as the party's front man, and its best hope of helping the GOP retain control of the House after the 2000 elections. But to some party insiders, he is also a choice that comes with great risk, since – like Gingrich – DeLay possesses the kind of personality that could lead him to reach too far and dissolve into the kind of demonized figure Democrats can easily exploit.
As he negotiates the shoals of his new role, DeLay is emerging as the acerbic counterpoint to the new speaker, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). While Hastert has taken a low-key, conciliatory approach since President Clinton was acquitted in the Senate, DeLay has publicly lambasted the administration on its planned deployment of U.S. troops to Kosovo and questioned its emergency spending request for Central America.
"I'm Tom DeLay and I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing. Denny [Hastert] understands that and, frankly, appreciates it," DeLay said in an interview, adding that while he couldn't assess his national prominence, "People know me more today than a year ago. We're able to reach out to them and ask for their help."
Deputy Whip Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R-Md.) said DeLay's new role reflects the fact that Hastert, the former chief deputy whip, is far more focused on managing the House than was his predecessor, Gingrich.
"It's far less to do with DeLay than the difference between Newt and Denny," Ehrlich said. "Denny is not, clearly, going to be the sole philosophical spokesman for the conference as Newt was."
In the process, DeLay's supporters and detractors agree, he has become even more influential – and potentially a more fruitful target for House Democrats eyeing the 2000 elections.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Patrick J. Kennedy (R.I.), for example, is already eager to pounce on DeLay's rising status within the GOP. "Republicans have acquired a brand identity which is very negative, in large part due to DeLay," Kennedy said. "If he's taking more of a leadership role over there, that's fine by us, because we can't take this House back alone. We need their help."
But if DeLay wields the potential to self-destruct from his own rhetoric, he also holds the potential to fire up the conservative core, and to raise large amounts of money in the process. With his extensive connections to the business community and the religious right, DeLay is a proven fund-raiser for his party. Over the past two years, he has donated $750,000 from his personal campaign and political action committee to candidates and helped raise another $1 million.
Gingrich's decision to retire in the wake of his party's poor showing in the November elections deprived the GOP of its most spectacular fund-raiser. While Hastert has focused on coaxing dollars out of major donors in small venues, DeLay has now lent his name and voice to some broader initiatives by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"DeLay Incorporated is one of the most savvy, aggressive political teams ever built," declared NRCC executive director Scott Hatch. "Members and donors respond to DeLay because he's a fighter, he's a man of principle."
After doing a test mailing, the NRCC sent out a four-page pitch under DeLay's signature explaining how much the party needs funds to counter the attacks of "ruthless, unyielding and determined foes."
"Led by skilled propagandists in the White House, the liberal Democrats will use smears, untruths and outright lies to attack our agenda and our leaders," DeLay wrote, adding that the media have been involved in this campaign. "That's why the pro-Clinton tool, the pornographer Larry Flynt, has gotten away thus far with viciously and systematically smearing the character of key Republican leaders like Henry Hyde. Well, I am fighting back against this porn-and-smut peddler."
The NRCC is also featuring DeLay in a more controversial telemarketing campaign, in which small-business people are told they can become honorary co-chairs of the "Business Advisory Committee" and earn a place in an April 15 Wall Street Journal ad if they donate between $300 and $500 to the GOP.
Al Pollack, a registered Republican who manufactures truck and trailer mud flaps in Tullytown, Pa., said he was surprised to receive a call from someone who told him he had earned the honor by virtue of his support for dramatic tax reform.
"No one had asked me whether I was in favor of this flat tax," Pollack said in an interview. "This is an example of a fund-raising method just as bad as anything they accuse the Democrats of doing. . . . Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder whether I'm still a Republican."
The two fund-raising initiatives are just part of what DeLay is doing to capitalize on his political network. He has already raised roughly $250,000 this year and plans a six-city tour of $100,000 dinners in the spring aimed at benefiting endangered incumbents, including some of the House Republicans who prosecuted the impeachment case against Clinton in the Senate.
At the same time, DeLay has reentered the legislative fray now that the 106th Congress has begun in earnest.
He and Hastert dismissed pleas from Clinton to put off a House debate last week over the wisdom of sending U.S. peacekeeping troops to Kosovo during a delicate moment in the administration's efforts to broker a deal in the embattled Serbian province. The two also vowed to ensure that the $1.3 billion disaster relief Clinton has pledged to Central America is offset with cuts in other programs, over the objections of the administration.
"He has begun to take on a broader mantle of leadership," said Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.), who serves as both a deputy whip and assistant majority leader. "This is a very ambitious guy looking for opportunities to leverage his influence and speak out."
By contrast, Hastert has kept a relatively low profile and has repeatedly voiced interest in bipartisanship and reconciliation – as he did by indicating that the House may consider a minimum-wage increase, by meeting with centrist Democrats to discuss the budget process and by voting last week to support the deployment of troops to Kosovo.
Hastert chief of staff Scott Palmer said that while Hastert and DeLay have different styles and the speaker has closer ties to moderates, both are firm conservatives who have largely agreed on the House GOP's recent course. "They fundamentally have the same vision, so there wasn't a need for the 'good cop, bad cop' thing," Palmer said, adding that the two lawmakers have adjusted quickly to their new roles. "Tom DeLay would never dictate anything to Denny Hastert. I'm sure about that."
DeLay said that while he has a "very aggressive" style compared to Hastert, people would be making a mistake to assume that the speaker's deliberate approach reflects a more moderate ideology.
"He's a strong conservative who wants to advance the conservative cause," DeLay said. "He's going to move us forward as far as possible with the votes available."
Even as he expands his reach – taking charge of the GOP's "K Street strategy" to tap into campaign donations from lobbyists and drum up dollars nationwide – DeLay remains what one lawmaker called "the consummate insider." He continues to offer members amenities – like ordering Armand's pizza the night the House was in late voting on the Kosovo resolution – and to keep in close contact with his former chief of staff, Ed Buckham, who serves as an informal consultant to the NRCC.
"He's been very effective in infiltrating other organizations and increasing his influence," said one GOP leader. "People gravitate to him a little bit more; they ask him for advice more."
But this same lawmaker said he already has warned DeLay against developing the kind of radioactive reputation that ultimately tarred Gingrich, the last household-name Republican: "He needs to pick his fights carefully."
But DeLay can't help but revel in how his "political enemies" have decided to home in on him as the next big target. "I must be doing something right, because they've certainly concentrated on me," he said.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company