DeLay's Glory Days

This hasn't been Rep. Tom DeLay's week. As scandals proliferate and the pile-on reaches critical mass, leading many to speculate that the White House itself is assisting in the bugman's fumigation, DeLay's days as the most powerful man in Congress may soon be over.

The real question is: what took so long? DeLay's web of corporate corruption has been known for years. The Texas Observer -- my favorite source for a progressive take on Lone Star politics -- ran a piece in 2000 which offers some clues behind DeLay's hold on power:

More than half of the American public has never heard of Tom DeLay, the conservative Republican who's represented Texas' 22nd district, including Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Harris counties, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1984. And, according to a poll taken late last year, among those few who do manage to recall who he is, DeLay is a blank slate, with nearly half unable to scrounge up any opinion about him one way or the other.

But according to both friends and foes on the Hill, DeLay is the single most powerful member of Congress. "He has moved more aggressively than anyone I have ever seen to accumulate leverage and power," says Norm Ornstein, veteran political analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Yet unlike former Speaker Newt Gingrich--who, until his spectacular fall from grace in 1998, was a ubiquitous and controversial symbol of Republican power in the House, and who often excelled as a blue-sky theoretician and strategist--DeLay is nearly faceless, rarely making headlines. DeLay's style is almost the polar opposite of Newt's. He operates largely behind the scenes, pulling strings and making the wheels turn in Congress, and wielding enormous power over the GOP rank and file through a top-down command structure of lieutenants. Though fiercely partisan and ideologically bonded to the right wing of the Republican party, DeLay has made himself indispensable by amassing an unparalleled political machine.

In today's high-visibility, high-tech era, DeLay has been somewhat of a throwback -- an old-school machine politician who built and enforced loyalty through back room deals and cold hard cash.

Forget "framing" and "message" and all the other things progressives now wring their hands about -- DeLay showed that all it took was muscle and money. And thanks to a complacent Washington media, DeLay's corrupt pay-to-play politics rarely came to light, even as the scandals mounted.

But if there's anything the corporate benefactors of DeLay's amoral politics care about, it's being on the winning team, and DeLay is fast-becoming a Loser. He may not be forced out of Congress -- it seems only a sex scandal can stir up enough indignation for that -- but his support and influence will certainly wane if the bad headlines don't stop.

DeLay's run as the top power broker on Capitol Hill are likely over.