Monday, April 03, 2006

Exit the Hammer

Tom DeLay is leaving Congress. Bush will miss him. As majority whip and then majority leader he did an amazing job in the House. Even with razor-thin margins, he managed to push through most of the Bush program and kept the restive Republican caucus united.

In 2004 he helped save Bush from himself. When the president announced that he would sign an extension of the so-called Assault Weapons Ban if it passed Congress, he put his re-election in jeopardy. Gun rights voters felt betrayed. DeLay simply let it be known that the AWB was never going to pass the House and the issue went away. GWB was spared a fight with the NRA during his tight re-election fight.

The GOP has had a twelve year run in the majority. Amazing, really, when you remember that they controlled the House for only 4 years between 1932 and 1994. DeLay was a big part of that success. He lasted longer than Gingrich and Lott and has been more effective than Frist over in the Senate. No wonder liberals are ecstatic at his retirement.

DeLay the Hammer because he set out to shatter the underpinnings of the Democratic ascendancy-what Michael Barone called the "House that Phil built". Barone described it well in his Almanac of American Politics, 1996:

To maintain the overall Democratic majority in the House, Burton relied not on the popularity of his issues, about which he entertained no illusions, but on institutional advantages such as redistricting and teaching talented young candidates with superior skills to hold otherwise Republican-leaning seats; he encouraged Democrats to rely on the perquisites of office and pork barrel projects.

Democrats continued to win majorities in every election. They ignored Republicans, routinely used the rules to prevent direct votes on issues on which their stands were unpopular, maintained caucus solidarity and, under the leadership of Tony Coelho in the 1980s, bludgeoned business PACs into contributing to marginal Democrats and not contributing to Republican challengers.

One point that Barone did not mention, was that the House of Phil Burton was also sustained by docile Republicans who accepted their minority status and the way it was maintained. Gingrich and DeLay refused to do that. DeLay, in particular, went after the business PACs and their contributions. Lobbyists could no longer fund their opponents and expect the Republicans to support their cause out of "free market" solidarity. Now Republican challengers to marginal Democrats did not face an insurmountable fund-raising challenge.

It was necessary work that DeLay undertook. Important for the cause and the party. But it is also dirty work at the margins and that proved his undoing. The Abramoff scandal proved an unending embarrassment and burden. Now it has forced him from office.

I just hope he writes a frank memoir of his time in politics. He was in the middle of everything for fifteen years. He has important stories to tell.

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