The indictment of Tom DeLay challenges a system of power. It is a blow against a national political machine that blurs the lines between parties, interest groups and the relentless pursuit of political money.
Defenders of politicians under attack typically say, no matter what the abuse is: "But everybody does it." That excuse does not work here. DeLay, who was forced to step down as House majority leader, was a pioneer in something entirely new: a fully integrated political apparatus that linked Republican Party committees, lobbyists, fundraisers, corporations, ideological organizations and the process of governing itself.
There was a candid shamelessness, even genius, about how the operation worked. Traditional limits on what was permitted in politics were dismissed as the obsessions of squishes and goo-goos, a term coined long ago to deride advocates of good government.
Because DeLay's defenders want to gloss over the facts, it's important to understand the specifics of the indictment brought by Ronnie Earle, the Democratic district attorney in Travis County. The charges offer a fine summary of how the new machine politics works.
DeLay and two associates are accused of raising $155,000 from six corporations for a special political action committee he established, Texans for a Republican Majority. The PAC, in turn, wrote a check for $190,000 to the Republican National State Elections Committee.
The national committee turned around and made contributions to seven candidates in the 2002 state legislative elections in Texas. How did the national group know whom to help? According to the indictment, a DeLay associate provided Terry Nelson, the Republican official who received the check, with a list of candidates to support and the amounts they were to receive.
Why go to all this trouble? Because corporate contributions are illegal in races in Texas, so the corporate money needed to be laundered. The point of the exercise was to win a Republican majority in the Texas Legislature so DeLay could execute his plan to redraw congressional district boundaries, knock out Democratic incumbents and pad his majority in the House with five new Republicans.
DeLay insists he did nothing illegal, but even if he wins the case, the core facts speak to the hubris of the new machine politics. Drawing congressional district lines for political purposes is an old story, but DeLay went a step further. He got the Texas Legislature to toss out a congressional map that had been drawn only two years earlier, an unprecedented act of political gamesmanship.
The corporations that forked over the cash to DeLay's PAC did so not because their hearts were filled with affection for those particular Texas legislative candidates but because they recognized DeLay's power over federal legislation. It put an innovative gloss on one of the oldest rules in politics: Power begets money, which begets more power, which begets more money.
That's why this case cannot be viewed apart from other aspects of the DeLay empire. He extended his influence by muscling lobbying firms to hire Republicans of his choosing and to ostracize Democrats. DeLay's majority happily invited lobbyists in to help write bills. The Medicare prescription drug benefit is far more expensive than it has to be because of big concessions to drug companies and HMOs. Tax bills are littered with very specific loopholes to benefit very specific interests.
Yes, there has always been logrolling in Washington. What's genuinely new is the scale, organization, reach and brazenness of the GOP's machine. Even Boss Tweed might blush.
This case comes at an awkward time for some Republicans, including President Bush -- but at an ideal time for reformers. After the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, journalists and members of Congress are looking more carefully at the political connections of those who get millions from federal contracts and those hired for key federal jobs. In a detailed report this week, Time magazine raised important questions about "whether political connections, not qualifications, have helped an unusually high number of Bush appointees land vitally important jobs in the Federal Government." It would be hard to find a more appropriate description of the behavior of a political machine.
DeLay's fate will be decided in court, but the larger issues raised by his case must be adjudicated by voters at election time. Republicans can already see the outlines of a 2006 Democratic campaign waged against cronyism, corruption and ineptitude. If ever Republican reformers had an opening for an insurrection against their party's deeply flawed power structure -- Sen. John McCain and Reps. Zach Wamp, Chris Shays and Mike Castle are among those who could lead the rebellion -- this is it. To save their party, Republicans will have to bring down the machine.