Into the GOP vacuum comes an even riskier spokesman: Tom DeLay, back from the political dead. John Avlon on why listening to him could destroy the party all over again. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
As the Republican Party debates whether it should remake itself as the Party of No-bama or the party of Limbaugh, I’ve got different advice for what remains of the party faithful.
Ask yourself, “What Would Tom DeLay Do?” And then do the opposite.
It’s a gut-check question—easily mass-produced on plastic bracelets that read “WWTDD,” and consultable in a quick fix. Most importantly, it accurately places the blame for the Republicans’ current travails on a dead-end hyper-partisan approach to politics and governance.
More than any other figure, Tom DeLay was responsible for the rise of not just the unprecedented pork-barrel spending that conservatives now blame for their defeats, but also the cronyism and corruption, and the odd combination of religious self-righteousness and amoral political opportunism.
Since his indictment in the fall of 2005, the discredited DeLay kept a mercifully low profile. But recently, “the Hammer” has resurfaced on cable-TV news, positioning himself as the leader of the conservative true believers—saying that President Obama’s “world view is socialism”—and castigating the GOP for losing its way. It’s time for a reality check: Republicans lost their way under his congressional leadership.
More than any other figure, Tom DeLay was responsible for the rise of not just the unprecedented pork-barrel spending that conservatives now blame for their defeats, but also the cronyism and corruption, the odd combination of religious self-righteousness and amoral political opportunism, the enforcement of group-think ideological extremism that leads politicians to mistake partisanship for principle.
Newt Gingrich offers a useful contrast – he’s also on the comeback commentary trail, but feels the obligation to at least offer new ideas. Unlike DeLay, Gingrich understands that alliances with the center are essential if the right wants to recover its influence. And more and more, the Gingrich years are looking like a high-water mark for Republicans – a time when they campaigned on clear ideas, advancing fiscal responsibility and political reform that appealed across narrow party-line divides. DeLay delighted in viewing politics as play-to-the-base blood-sport, with power as the ultimate payoff.
Despite having the nickname “the exterminator,” DeLay did not try to exterminate wasteful spending when in power. During DeLay’s tenure, congressional earmarks increased from 1,000 more than 10,000. The 2005 highway bill had more than three times the number of pork-barrel appropriations than its 1998 counterpart. The 2005 federal budget contained a record 13,997 pork-barrel projects—an increase of more than 31 percent over the previous election year. Some defenders attribute the spending of the Bush/DeLay to the war on terror, but non-defense discretionary spending during President Bush’s first three years in office jumped 8.2 percent—compared to a 2.5 percent increase under the divided government of Clinton/Gingrich—exceeding even Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society spending. Nonetheless, DeLay told reporters that by the end of his term there was very little fat left to cut from the federal budget, saying that “after 11 years of Republican majority, we’ve pared it down pretty good.”
DeLay combined his liberal spending with a strident social conservatism—precisely the combination most likely to anger and alienate centrist swing voters. During his congressional career he was a constant critic of federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Environmental Protection Agency (which he delicately declared “the Gestapo of Government”). He possessed such a unified field theory of liberal cultural decline that he was able to connect abortion with illegal immigration, telling college Republicans (in a recording captured by Max Blumenthal), “If we had those 40 million children that were killed over the last 30 years, we wouldn't need the illegal immigrants to fill the jobs that they are doing today. Think about it.” After the shootings at Columbine High School, DeLay took to the floor of the Congress to mock the idea that the students’ access to semi-automatic weapons was to blame for the mass murder. He found a more suitable suspect in the teaching of evolution: “It couldn't have been because our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud… No, it must have been the guns.” DeLay took a leading role in the jump-the-shark moment (and deeply un-conservative) congressional intrusion into the Terri Schiavo case. This position opened him to accusations of hypocrisy when the Los Angeles Times revealed that DeLay had supported taking his father off life-support. He tried to sidestep similar accusations by saying that he “was no longer committing adultery” by the time of Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
DeLay took great pride in his effectiveness at enforcing party unity, first as majority Whip and then as majority leader—a message reinforced by a leather bull-whip that hung in his office. It was this culture of group-think conformity that led to arrogance and widespread accusations of corruption that would ultimately bring both DeLay and the Republican Party down. DeLay created the K Street Project to pressure lobbying firms to hire Republicans (and punish those who didn’t). He considered the currently imprisoned superlobbyst Jack Abramoff one of his closest friends. Two former DeLay aides were indicted with Abramoff in what amounted to a revolving-door arrangement that bilked taxpayers and clients (Native American casino clients were often referred to in emails as “monkeys” or “troglodytes”) out of millions of dollars while blocking bills and providing junkets galore. DeLay set up a PAC that paid his wife and daughter half a million dollars to spread the wealth. He was not only a fan of party purges that put primary challengers up against centrist Republicans, he was an aggressive proponent of redistricting, cutting up Texas seats mid-decade. Texas Republican congressional aide Joby Fortson rejoiced in the success of the effort by emailing a colleague about senior Democrat Martin Frost: "Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha . . . His district disappeared.”
Ultimately, DeLay’s cynical tricks caught up with him, and he was indicted on criminal charges of conspiracy and money-laundering in September 2005. He ultimately declined to run for re-election in the spring of 2006. Congressman Bob Ney (also known for christening “Freedom Fries”) was imprisoned in the Abramoff scandals while conservative activists Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist were dragged into the muck as well. In all, twenty Beltway brokers pleaded guilty or were indicted. On a separate matter, GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense-contractor lobbyists and Mark Foley got caught up in a page-texting scandal.
Against this backdrop, the sea change between the gains of the GOP in 2004 and the Republican repudiations of 2006 and 2008 begin to make sense. It was not, as current partisan narratives would have you believe, simply a response to Republican overspending (a refrain constantly repeated at CPAC), or a populist rejection of the war in Iraq. A look back at the 2006 CNN exit polls shows that the No. 1 issue for voters in 2006 was corruption/ethics—cited by 42 percent of respondents. This was followed, in descending order, by terrorism, the economy, Iraq, values, and illegal immigration. All this led to a 62 percent disapproval rating for Congress. As Newt Gingrich told me in a thinly veiled shot at his post-1998 Republican successors, “they thought that power mattered more than ideas and principle and policy—and they were wrong.”
In his final speech to Congress, DeLay gave a defense of his actions, saying, “It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle.” This is the sound of an end-justifies-the-means patriot, who believes not just in “my country, right or wrong” but in “my party, right or wrong.”
So remember all this the next time “the exterminator” takes to the airwaves peddling hyper-partisan prescriptions for the revival of the Republican Party. He is the source of, and not the solution to, the GOP’s deep disconnect with the American electorate.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon was director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as chief speechwriter for then-Mayor Giuliani.