TWO THINGS HAPPENED LAST WEEK that cast a sharp light on the real impetus behind the Democratic/media effort to bring down House majority leader Tom DeLay. The first was House approval, by a huge margin of 110 votes on final passage, of the permanent repeal of the federal inheritance tax. The second was DeLay's apology for having predicted negative consequences for judges such as those in the Terri Schiavo case who go out of their way to ignore the wishes of the other two branches of government.
The scheduling of the tax vote was not DeLay's decision alone. The default position of House Republicans is that you schedule your high-profile tax-cut votes in the week leading up to April 15. But sticking to that plan completely ignored the conventional 2005 wisdom of Washington elites (including many Senate Republicans) that in the face of big deficits, reduction or elimination of an important tax is at the very least far less appealing than in earlier years.
Evidently, when faced with a vote, most House members--all but one Republican (Jim Leach of Iowa) and dozens of Democrats--could not bring themselves to act on this supposedly self-evident insight. House support for final repeal of the inheritance tax reached its high-water mark in this, the fourth straight year the House endorsed it. If DeLay were out of the picture, it is hard to imagine the vote happening at all. Certainly no high officials in either the Senate or White House advocated such a vote, or even moved to follow suit once the huge bipartisan House margin suggested the likelihood that the repeal measure has retained all of its earlier political potency.
As to DeLay's apology for supposedly threatening America's judges, it wasn't nearly as abject as his critics desired. And he continues to advocate a House investigation of judicial supremacy and its many practitioners. What's interesting is not the extent to which DeLay climbed down, but the kind of man he is to show such indignation toward judicial conduct in the Schiavo case in the first place.
Most elected officials show indignation only in the wake of compelling poll data. At the time DeLay spoke out, and since, all the polling on the Schiavo case cut strongly against his stand. The kind of person who would be indignant in the face of near unanimity among the judges, the editorial writers, and the pollsters is apt to be someone who himself is deeply pro-life and socially conservative, not someone out to score political points or "stroke the base."
Moreover, as a pure analytic matter, DeLay's complaint about the inability of the legislative and executive branches to bring the judicial branch to any kind of account is among the most unassailable things he could have said. Yet we had the spectacle, for days on end, of the White House and the Republican Senate leadership hastening to explain how much they admire the independence of the judicial branch.
President Bush did not seem so admiring in his final (and best) debate with John Kerry last fall, when he explained his endorsement of the Federal Marriage Amendment as an effort to keep the nation's judicial elites from taking the decision on how to define marriage out of the hands of the American people. And if Bill Frist is so satisfied with the present state of the judiciary, how can he attach such importance to breaking the Democratic filibuster on the president's judicial nominees?
The truth is that Tom DeLay is a special target because he is the first legislative power broker to be an authentic Red State conservative. He is an unhyphenated Reaganite: militantly pro-life and pro-values on social issues, a pro-growth tax cutter on economic issues, and an unapologetic, spread-American-values interventionist abroad. In the years since the GOP's congressional realignment victory of 1994, no other GOP leader in either the House or Senate fully fits this description.
Certainly not Newt Gingrich, whose Contract With America was designed to play down abortion and other social issues. Nor was DeLay part of Gingrich's inner group. In Gingrich's most pivotal internal House victory, his campaign in 1989 to succeed Dick Cheney as minority whip, DeLay was chief vote counter for Gingrich's opponent, Ed Madigan of Illinois. When DeLay was elected majority whip in 1995, it was at the expense of a close Gingrich ally, Robert Walker of Pennsylvania.
DeLay joined others much closer to Gingrich in the abortive effort to oust Gingrich in 1997, but unlike most of the others was able to maintain his standing in the House. Even so, he would have remained a cog in the machine (albeit an important one) had not both Gingrich and his chosen successor, Bob Livingston, resigned within weeks of each other a year later. That made possible the sudden elevation to speaker of a little-known DeLay deputy whip, Rep. Denny Hastert, and the Red State era of the House truly began in 1999.
Since the 2000 election and the accompanying Red State/Blue State polarization, Red State conservatives have grown in strength in tandem with the alternative Red State media: talk and Christian radio, conservative bloggers, Fox News, and all the rest who have put older, Blue State media on notice that they are no longer capable of unilaterally defining the national debate.
DeLay is the most important of a small but growing group of conservative leaders who are willing and able to operate without permission or praise from Blue State media. The fact that Hastert, DeLay, and their allies have maintained unbroken operational control of the House, never losing a significant floor vote in the four-plus years since Bush became president, has (to put it mildly) opened the door for other ambitious leaders to consider doing the same, either on selected issues or across the board.
If DeLay goes down because of overseas trips and/or fundraising practices that have never caused the slightest political problem for anyone else, the lesson to other Red State leaders will be clear. The four-year House winning streak, so widely taken for granted among conservatives, will not long survive DeLay. That is why Democrats and Blue State media (despite some half-hearted efforts to depict DeLay as a GOP albatross) so fervently desire his career to end as soon as possible.
As he begins his effort to force the Senate to permit a majority to approve new conservative judges--inevitably to culminate in a Supreme Court nomination fight--Bill Frist will soon have to choose whether, like DeLay, to operate on the Red State side of the divide, expecting and getting no praise from older Blue State media. If Frist does so successfully, he is in the game to succeed President Bush as the Red State candidate. If he fails or turns aside, the Blue State media will dislike him less, but his presidential hopes will almost certainly be history.
Jeffrey Bell is a principal of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.