Monday, April 10, 2006

It was surprising that Tom DeLay got to write his own narrative for his exit from Congress. One might have expected a greater degree of media and partisan skepticism directed at his self-portrait of his exit as a man seizing a political opportunity to extract maximum benefit for his party. At least, if my former deputy chief of staff had copped a plea to corruption charges the very same week, with more to come, I would expect skepticism.

But no, the story was that Mr. DeLay, having defeated a primary challenge, chose the moment to step down in order to clear the way for another Republican to take his place on the ballot in the general election, thus potentially saving a seat for the GOP in the year that poses the greatest challenge to its majority of its 11-year run so far. Admittedly, that sounds a lot better than: He’s trying to outrun the long arm of the law.

I think Mr. DeLay got away with his story line because of the sense in Washington that he’s finished. The dictates of political realism tell us that you don’t waste your energy on the dead. Democrats made a seamless transition from demonizing Mr. DeLay to demonizing Republicans for being just like Mr. DeLay, the memory of the dead man still being fresh enough, presumably, to continue to inflict political damage. The pleasure Democrats took in his downfall was genuine, even if they will miss the live target.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, were openly glad to see him go. He was too much trouble to defend now, in exchange for no benefit of consequence, the political power of the majority leader’s office having slipped away beyond hope of recovery. So let him go softly on a platter of his own spinning.

But here’s the thing: I really doubt we have seen the last of Tom DeLay. Rather than his demise, last week may have been the opening act of his comeback. Comeback as what, I don’t know, but at a minimum, as a major force in GOP politics, whether the Republican establishment likes it or not.

Now admittedly, there are a couple things that will have to happen in order for him to achieve his return to consequence. First of all, he will have to avoid indictment in the widening Jack Abramoff corruption investigation. It would be foolish to think that we know what’s on the prosecutors’ minds from their court filings so far. Do they have a case against Mr. DeLay? How good a case? Is it getting better from the testimony of those who served on his congressional staff and have turned cooperating witness? Or is it just puttering along?

If Mr. Delay and his lawyers reached the conclusion that the case against him was no better than right at the margin, he certainly made the correct decision to leave his House seat. His lawyers will be telling wavering prosecutors that he has already voluntarily relinquished his position of power and influence, and that argument may prove to be the 5 percent edge that keeps him out of the dock.

Next, he will have to beat the rap in Texas. Mr. DeLay has had some success casting Travis County prosecutor and Democratic foe Ronnie Earle’s campaign money-laundering charges as partisan in character. For maximal rehabilitation, obviously, Mr. DeLay needs an acquittal. A hung jury and a mistrial wouldn’t be a bad outcome, either.

It would be hugely favorable to Mr. DeLay if his seat stays Republican. An important test for any king is the orderliness of the succession when the time comes. Mr. DeLay is the local king; people in Washington tend not to fully appreciate just how consequential a figure a member of Congress is in his home district. If Mr. DeLay’s anointed successor holds the seat, Mr. DeLay retains his stature, likely with short-term implications throughout Texas politics (and notwithstanding that he is changing his official residence to Virginia).

What then? Hard to say. A return to elected office seems unlikely. But as it happens, there is one constituency within the Republican Party that at the moment, at least, is institutionally underserved: the evangelical community.

Democrats find it convenient to paint a portrait of a GOP that has fallen to an overall “religious right” takeover. The truth is that evangelicals have always found themselves somewhat marginalized by the party establishment — never really welcomed, never really a priority. Mr. DeLay might be just the fellow to organize a genuine grass-roots conservative evangelical political movement with the clout to advance its issues within the GOP on pain of having members sit out an election.

The Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed made himself a star (and a friend of Jack Abramoff) through the trick of getting evangelicals to accommodate themselves to the GOP establishment in exchange for a place at the table. Clever boy. But the real crunch comes when evangelicals start demanding accommodation from the GOP establishment as the price of staying at the table.

Sounds like a job for the Hammer.

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