Pat Sullivan  /  AP file
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
By contributor
updated 3/30/2005 4:29:17 PM ET 2005-03-30T21:29:17

A new drama of survival has begun here – political, not physical; legal, not spiritual. The central character isn’t a woman in a hospital bed but a controversial Republican leader in the House of Representatives. Rep. Tom DeLay may not want to admit it to himself, but he’s fighting for his political life.

I wouldn’t have said so two weeks ago. But I’ve seen enough of these dramas unfold to know when I’m watching a new one, and now I am. You know the story line, which dates back to the Greeks: a powerful, hubristic leader is brought low by his own flaws. Think Jim Wright, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton.

A key but cautious leader of the Republican leadership put it to me this way in private recently: “Members want us spend our time protecting them. They don’t like having to spend their time protecting us.” Meaning: their idea of fun and productive use of time in the capital is not “DeFending DeLay.”

By melodramatically linking his own destiny with that of Terri Schiavo, DeLay didn’t help himself. He made himself look vulnerable and scared – which is all his enemies needed to convince themselves to step up their attacks. If you want to watch a passion play, fine. But don’t cast yourself in the lead.

This is a city dedicated to ambition, but also to the occasional ritual (and largely ineffective) cleansing. The goal of the truly power-hungry is to find new routes to the top without antagonizing a critical mass of the trampled and the angry. DeLay succeeded for quite some time; that time might be about to end. True, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. But just because DeLay won’t be subpoenaed to testify on the Hill doesn’t mean he is safe.

Why? First, a federal grand jury, which is deep into an investigation of fundraising and influence peddling by DeLay’s friends and former staffers in town. The probe may never reach DeLay himself; indeed, he’s not the focus of the probe. But in the court of politics, guilt by association can add up to … guilt. The roster of people close to him has gotten long and, therefore, conspicuous.

The dynamics of disassembly
DeLay built a state-of-the-art machine to raise money, win elections and wield legislative influence. Now the question is whether that machine overran the bounds of law. And, as DeLay will find to his chagrin, that question can’t always be answered by saying that each action was arguably legal at the time. It’s the big picture – if it can be clearly assembled – that can do the damage.

Media dynamics are another factor. Let’s accept for a moment that there are, in fact, TWO “media,” Red and Blue. You know where the Blue are coming from: they’re going to go after DeLay with everything they’ve got. But there comes a point when even the Red media will want to focus on the DeLay story – and even if their basic instinct is to defend him, they will be doing precisely what the Majority Leader desperately doesn’t want: raising his profile.

Plus, not all of the Red Media is so friendly anymore. Say what you want about The Wall Street Journal editorial page, but they are consistent in their minimum regard for ethical mores in Washington. And ominously for DeLay, the page has begun to view him as an example of what’s wrong with the capital. If that machine produces an “odor,” as the Journal editorial writers put it, it doesn’t absolve DeLay that “he smells just like the Beltway itself.”

Turning the tough into a target
Washington has a way of getting even with tough guys who are too blatant about it, and DeLay is feared and hated in much of the “downtown” lobbying community. DeLay is right to decry the hypocrisy of “K Street,” which has been run by Democratic fixers since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. The majority leader, with a determination that even Gingrich didn’t muster, has been the lead player in an effort to root out Democratic influence peddlers and replace them with Bush-era Republicans. All’s fair, right? No it’s not.

Leaderless and intellectually rudderless, the Democrats are desperate for issues, and they have decided (to the extent there is a “they”) to make a piñata of DeLay. The old argument against doing so was that no one knew who he was. Then people like Jim Jordan, a tough and media-savvy advisor to DNC Chairman Howard Dean, essentially said, what the heck, let’s go for it – and he and others have convinced some of the party’s big money types to have at it.

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There’s a certain logic to the enterprise: don’t take on the Texas president, who remains popular, especially as commander-in-chief. Take on another Texas, who comes from Houston, who is close to the Oil Boys, and who can be made to stand for the GOP’s never-ending vulnerability, which is that they are too close to corporate power, especially the kind that sells gas for $2.50 a gallon.

Inside the GOP leadership on the Hill, DeLay is not beloved. He is admired for his fundraising skill and political daring, but at least some of the top figures are wary of him. Speaker Denny Hastert, once thought of as a creation and tool of the DeLay, has risen in esteem – and real and perceived independence. Majority Whip Roy Blunt, widely respected and much liked at the White House, is waiting in the wings should the need arise to move up in the ranks.

Relations between the president and DeLay have never been particularly warm – Texas isn’t quite big enough for the both of them. Bush and Karl Rove have been careful to cultivate him over the years, of course, and they have made common cause since Bush first started running for governor in 1993. Bush likes to delegate the tough stuff – to people like DeLay and Rove – but they are still hired help.

And you can always fire the help.

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