Reading Anne E. Kornblut’s piece in the New York Times Week in Review on Sunday, you’d think that Tom DeLay was on top of the world, lookin’ down on Creation.
Politicians are not always the most courageous lot. The first whiff of scandal, the first taint of defeat, usually makes them run – hence the popular saying that if you want a friend in this town, get a dog.
But Republicans in the House have not run from Tom DeLay, who, like Bill Clinton before him, has defied political gravity in recent months. Three of his former aides have been indicted in an investigation of campaign fund-raising practices; a close lobbyist friend is under criminal investigation; the House ethics committee is preparing to reconsider allegations that Mr. DeLay and his staff members violated travel rules.
Rather than try to protect themselves and engineer a coup, Republican members are throwing a tribute party for him this week. President Bush is also standing firm, even taking him along on Air Force One.
Raising a simple question: Why?
His supporters say that Mr. DeLay, the House majority leader, has done nothing wrong – that he’s the target of unfair attacks from Democrats bent on partisan revenge. Yet the volume of outspoken support also speaks to the strong personal loyalty many have for Mr. DeLay. How is it that he is more popular among Republicans than, say, President Bush’s proposals for Social Security?
The reason, it seems, is that over the years, brick by brick, Mr. DeLay has built a wall of political support. His small acts of kindness have become lore. Pizza during late night votes. Travel arrangements for low-level lawmakers. Birthday wishes, get-well cards, condolences for House members in emotional need.
On a larger scale, friends – and enemies – describe him as a favor-trader extraordinaire, piling up a mountain of goodwill. Almost every Republican in the House owes Mr. DeLay for something – a job, a piece of legislation or a large campaign contribution.
Mr. DeLay’s advisers say it is the outrageous nature of attacks on the majority leader – not his history of carrot-and-stick maneuvering – that has prompted so many Republicans to leap to his defense.
“The conference understands these attacks for what they are,” said Dan Allen, a spokesman for the majority leader, “a well-organized and well-funded attack by House Democrats and their liberal allies, in the hopes of preventing House Republicans from moving our bipartisan agenda.”
Some analysts say this strategy is another part of the DeLay chess game. His most clever move, said Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, “is to make sure people are convinced this is not an attack on Tom DeLay, it’s an attack on what Tom DeLay stands for.”
“And so they rally behind him,” he said, “because they see it as an attack on them.”
Then turn to today’s Washington Post and John F. Harris and Mike Allen are writing that DeLay is under tremendous pressure, suffering from insomnia, and finding out that doors are being slammed in his face.
For a full decade, the 58-year-old DeLay’s career has prospered because he was usually right in this calculation, say legislators from both parties who have watched him in action. DeLay could be himself — a partisan with a zeal for ideological combat, a taste for high living and intense religious conviction — in ways that made him exceptionally powerful in Congress but not especially recognizable to the public beyond.
Suddenly, the old Texas brio that carried him through years of smaller controversies is on the wane. The leader recognizes — belatedly, some GOP colleagues say — that the latest questions about his relationships with lobbyists are a problem threatening his career and the GOP majority he helped to build and sustain since coming to the House 20 years ago. Everywhere there are signs of a politician in retreat.
Even among loyalists, DeLay receives regular reminders of his troubles. Among House committee chairmen, an essential part of his power base, there are disagreements about what his strategy should be — whether to continue to go on the offense against critics, or try to turn down the volume on DeLay’s truculent defense in the hope that the controversy will die down.
There are few signs of that yet. To the contrary, the majority leader finds himself simultaneously a leading character on the evening news, in the “Doonesbury” comic strip and on “Saturday Night Live.”
“The demonization of Tom DeLay has been a sport in this town that has gone on for a long period of time, and clearly it is moving beyond the Beltway,” said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), who spends much of his workweek in meetings with DeLay. “We acknowledge that. But that doesn’t make it necessarily more successful. DeLay is a guy who, when people are attacking, he just puts his head down and charges right ahead.”
On the House floor, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he sees a forlorn figure, a man with a drawn face and sad bearing. Coming from one of the House’s more partisan Democrats, the observation was offered with no special sympathy. But it reflects the insight of someone who has been there — Frank was embroiled in an ethics contretemps of his own in the 1980s.
DeLay friends do not dispute these observations, agreeing that the personal toll is becoming increasingly obvious. “He’s withdrawn, he’s tired, he looks like he’s not sleeping,” said a Republican aide who has worked closely with DeLay, but who agreed to share his observations only on the condition of anonymity.
One irony of DeLay’s predicament is that he is relying on some of the same techniques that his onetime foe, President Bill Clinton, used to weather his storms: Aides emphasize how DeLay’s office is “compartmentalized” so that only a few aides work on scandal management, and they insist the majority leader is little distracted from his duties.
Aides said DeLay spends 60 to 70 percent of his time in leadership meetings or sessions with members, with only an occasional visit from a lobbyist. He comes to the office promptly at 9 a.m. when Congress is in session, after working out at the House gym.
Republican officials working with DeLay said it appears to be too late for him to try a more classic damage-control strategy, including a lengthy news conference or appearance on a television news show, an admission of minor mistakes and an expression of contrition.
As explained by insiders, the DeLay survival strategy is to attack the critics, including questioning the motives of reporters and the funding sources of watchdog groups; leak data making it clear that Democrats engaged in many of the same practices; and relentlessly curry loyalty with his two bases outside the Capitol — national conservative groups and Republicans in his district.
What’s clear in both of these stories — whether he’s up or whether he’s down — DeLay is intent on finding fault not in himself or his connections with sleazy lobbyists but with his opponents or the media. This fits right in with the contemporary trend on the part of those in power to fail to live up to the expectation — promoted mostly by the tut-tutters of the Right Wing — of taking responsibility for their actions.
“The Buck Stops Here,” said the no-nonsense sign on President Harry Truman’s desk. Today, it sits in a Missouri museum. And with it perhaps the sentiment it represented.
It was more than a slogan. The notion of accepting responsibility without passing the buck or blaming others when things went wrong was central to the work ethic and moral tone of the time.
By contrast today, leaders of the country’s great institutions infrequently step forward and take responsibility for failure or even honest mistakes. It is sometimes imposed by others, notably juries, but less so by the broader American society and virtually never invoked voluntarily in politics, business, religion or popular culture.
Whatever the reasons for the decline of an ethic of responsibility, most experts agree that how people feel about their obligations has changed, particularly for those in positions of power and influence.
“Responsibility is waning. The strong sense of holding people responsible is getting more and more difficult,” said Joan McGregor, a philosopher at Arizona State University. “We still hold people responsible all the time in a legal sense. But in a moral sense, it’s as though no one is responsible anymore.”
Former President Bill Clinton personified the trend.
When first accused of having an affair with a former White House intern, he angrily denied it and then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton blamed a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” After he was caught lying under oath to conceal the affair, he lashed out at the politics of personal destruction. In his presidential library, he avoids personal responsibility and devotes most of an exhibit on his impeachment to blaming Republicans for trying to unseat him.
By the time he launched his presidential campaign in June 1999, George W. Bush, too, saw a problem. “My first goal is to usher in the responsibility era, an era that stands in stark contrast to the last few decades, where our culture has said: If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame someone else,” he said.
After the United States was attacked in 2001, however, Bush resisted attempts to find flaws in the nation’s intelligence or security apparatus. Once he relented, investigations found fault, but Bush didn’t assign responsibility or take it.
Investigations also faulted intelligence services for wrongly stating that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded. Again, Bush didn’t assign responsibility or take it.
In fact, policymakers who expressed skepticism about parts of the administration’s case for war weren’t asked to return for Bush’s second term, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage.
Those who publicly or privately trumpeted the false intelligence were either retained or promoted, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice; her former deputy, Stephen Hadley; and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
So no matter whether Tom DeLay’s glass is half-full or half-empty, either way it’s not his fault.