What's the difference between the Republican Party then and the Republican Party now? Here's an illustration: Richard Nixon was the president who established the Environmental Protection Agency. Tom "The Hammer" DeLay is the congressman who called the EPA a latter-day "Gestapo."
So pardon me for going way beyond schadenfreude to outright giddiness at the prospect that the Hammer will finally get nailed.
It may be too much to hope that the former House majority leader -- and how good it feels to write "former" -- will actually be convicted and do jail time. The indictment for criminal conspiracy returned by a Texas grand jury on Wednesday is for alleged campaign finance violations that are the rough equivalent of money laundering, which is not the easiest crime to prove in court.
But DeLay's problems are bigger than Texas. His golf-buddy relationship with Jack Abramoff, a fat-cat lobbyist under federal indictment, will face months of scrutiny. DeLay's resignation from the House leadership is supposed to be temporary, but Republicans ignored his wishes and picked a strong successor who could serve out the rest of this Congress if necessary. Clearly they believe their former leader will be distracted for some time.
Which makes me feel like it's morning again in America.
DeLay, because he's such a ruthlessly effective bully, has been as responsible as anyone for pushing his party to the end of the political spectrum previously reserved for the anti-everything, loony-bin far right. His comeuppance is an occasion to remind ourselves just what a long, strange trip it's been.
There was a time when the conservative movement in this country was the preserve of principled eccentrics such as Barry Goldwater. These days Goldwater would be thought of as a libertarian more than anything else, a firm believer that what people really needed was a good leaving-alone. In his prime, he occupied fringe territory that was light-years from the mainstream.
Ronald Reagan changed everything, shifting the nation's center of gravity to the right. In retrospect, whatever you thought of Reagan's policies -- and I didn't like them -- the man at least had a certain generosity of spirit. His idea of the black experience in America may have been Sammy Davis Jr.'s career, his views of women may have been antediluvian and his impression of gay people may have come exclusively from dining with Nancy's friends, but at least he had some experience of people unlike himself and an appreciation of their humanity.
The crowd now in control of Washington, thanks in part to DeLay's undeniable skills, could best be described as Reagan's illegitimate heirs.
Theirs is a greedy, small-minded conservatism. In their policies, they seek not to improve government, and certainly not to shrink it, but to ruin it -- to starve the regulatory agencies with tax cuts, then spend so wildly on pork that there's nothing left to pay for actual government work such as, say, preparing for a hurricane.
The Republican Party's "small government" rhetoric is hilarious, but while you're laughing, keep a grip on your wallet. Since 2000, the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled, to an astonishing 34,750. That's a lot of mouths at the trough.
DeLay and Co. don't just want to bankrupt the government, they want to force the whole country to conform to their "moral" prescriptions. On private matters such as abortion, homosexuality, religion, even end-of-life decisions, they demand that all of us do as they say. When it comes to the millions who lack health insurance, though, or to persistent poverty in the inner cities -- well, those problems are for individuals and "faith-based" institutions to grapple with as best they can.
DeLay was clever enough to see that if a few more safe GOP seats could be engineered in Texas, Democrats would need a tidal wave of votes to regain control. The political action committee he formed to get these seats redistricted into existence, Texans for a Republican Majority, came under the scrutiny of the Travis County district attorney, Ronnie Earle, and that scrutiny led to DeLay's indictment.
I like the irony that DeLay may end up a victim of hubris -- that his downfall may result from his efforts to perpetuate his awful legacy. But if it comes from the Abramoff probe or somewhere else, I won't complain. He doesn't even have to go to jail; he can just go back to killing bugs in Houston. Just as long as he goes. This will be a better country when that "former" in front of his title is permanent.