Since 1980 the Republicans have occupied the White House in all but eight years. In more than half of those years, the Senate has had a Republican majority; and since 1994, the Republicans have controlled the U.S. House of Representatives. But conservatives have been frustrated often in these same years by a failure to bring conservative legislation to final approval.
Conservatives have learned that there is a big difference between a Republican majority and a conservative majority. Conservatives never had a true working ideological control of either house of Congress. For all of his political gifts, Speaker Newt Gingrich (1995-98) was not able to deliver a sweeping and victorious conservative agenda. After the government shutdown debacle, Republicans retreated. The Republican Senate has even been more disappointing. It has seemed that liberal Republicans like Lincoln Chafee and Arlen Specter have gotten their way more often than have those on the right who represent the heart and soul of the party.
But in recent years, the U.S. House has pushed a bold reform agenda — especially on economic matters. Even those who have not been pleased with this turn of political events agree that a crucial factor in this ideological shift to the right in the House has been House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his whip system, which has been operating with increasing efficiency since 1995. Both sides of the national debate agree that Mr. DeLay, who has earned the nickname “the Hammer,” has run the strongest whip operation in the House in decades.
You now know all you have to know about why Tom DeLay is under increasing fire for trumped-up ethics violations. Mr. DeLay is despised by the left, not because his actions have been illegal, but because they’ve been completely effective at neutering the left.
Consider the tax-cut agenda. In the last four years, the House has passed a net tax cut every year. The House enacted a death-tax repeal by a wide margin, health savings accounts, IRA legislation and even a law to sunset the Internal Revenue Service tax code. In too many cases, the Senate has become a graveyard of sorts for positive House-enacted legislation.
Mr. DeLay further infuriated the left earlier this year when he won a redistricting victory in Texas that will give Republicans four to six additional House seats next year. Mr. DeLay insisted that the grossly gerrymandered political lines in Texas be redrawn. In Texas, about 60 percent of the voters are Republicans, but the Democrats under the old lines had a majority of the House seats. Mr. DeLay won a thorough victory against the remains of the old Democratic machine in Texas, and the left has had their sword out for him ever since.
The Democrats have learned they can’t crack Mr. DeLay’s conservative whip machine, so they have instead charged him with frivolous ethics violations on issues like soliciting illegal campaign contributions. This bullying tactic is hardly new: It is the centerpiece of liberal strategy in the post-New Deal era. Play ball with us, or we will destroy you. This is the politics of personal destruction that the left seems to always complain about. It worked against Richard Nixon, it worked against Mr. Gingrich, and in the Iran-Contra investigation it came amazingly close to bringing down the most effective adversary the left has ever had, Ronald Reagan.
The most recent set of charges against Mr. DeLay has been the work of liberal organizations, particularly the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). To file their charges with the House Ethics Committee, CREW drafted a lame-duck Democratic congressman, Chris Bell of Texas, to be their front man. Following the redistricting battle in Texas, Mr. Bell, a white liberal freshman, was overwhelmed in the Democratic primary in a new urban district by a black legislator, and has made no secret of his animus toward Mr. DeLay.
Mr. Bell himself is under investigation by the committee, and all his major charges were thrown out. But instead of exonerating Mr. DeLay, the committee administered several wrist slaps.
The ethics committee threw out an accusation by Mr. Bell that Mr. DeLay solicited campaign contributions in return for favorable action on the Bush energy package. But Mr. DeLay was “admonished” for attending a golf outing with energy executives while the energy bill was pending. There is a lot of slimy underhanded activity that goes on in Washington, but a golf outing with a lobbyist seems fairly tame to us.
Mr. DeLay received another wrist slap for offering to endorse the son of retiring Rep. Nick Smith in this year’s Michigan primary if Mr. Smith would vote for the Bush Medicare bill. Mr. Smith denies the “horse trade” ever happened.
Let’s be clear: The left wants to smear Mr. DeLay, cover him with mud, and then ride him out of town. Conservatives can’t allow this to stand. Mr. DeLay’s “sin” is to be a conservative Reaganite who never flinches from a fight. Of course, if Mr. DeLay were toppled, the left would be emboldened to torpedo other conservative leaders until we had either a resurrection of Democratic control of the Congress or Republican leadership with no backbone or ideological design.
Tom DeLay has one other endearing quality that has made him a stunningly successful political leader. Mr. DeLay doesn’t much care what the establishment press writes about him. He disregards The Washington Post and New York Times. For some in the Republican Party who think that image is more important than policy victory that’s unforgivable. But Mr. DeLay understands that when Republicans run as milquetoast Democrats, not only does the conservative movement lose ground, but so does the Republican majority.
Conservative leaders, in and out of Congress, need to defend Tom DeLay with all the resources at their command. If Mr. DeLay is destroyed by the left’s henchmen, it may be a long while before anyone else with his ideological commitment and legislative effectiveness comes forward to take his place.
Stephen Moore is president of the Club for Growth. Jeffrey Bell is a principal of Capital City Partners.