It’s a sad sign of how starved Republicans in the House of Representatives are for leadership that they continue to rally around Majority Leader Tom DeLay, even as doubts deepen about the ethics of the former Texas exterminator whose delicate touch earned him the nickname “The Hammer.”
For the sake of the party — but even more importantly, the institution — Republican colleagues should ask DeLay to give up his leadership post until all allegations against him have been investigated and resolved.
Failure to do so will further damage whatever reputation the GOP retains as the party of good-government types and reformers — a reputation tainted by a recent series of rules changes that seem designed to shield DeLay from scrutiny and water down ethics standards. It also seems to us confirmation of how lacking congressional Republicans are in leaders who possess vision, stature and unassailable integrity.
This doesn’t mean we convict DeLay of all allegations against him, some of which are undoubtedly motivated by partisanship or the media’s sensing blood in the water. Nor do we relish a return to the days when “ethics wars” engulfed Congress, claiming high-profile casualties on both sides of the aisle. We simply believe these allegations cumulatively have a corrosive effect on the image of Congress and that no single member is more important than the institution. We also find it hard to believe the GOP doesn’t have a better face to put forward than DeLay’s.
At least in Congress, it seems the Republican Party is being represented by individuals who would have been lucky to bench-warm for past party leaders. DeLay, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist aren’t bad people or complete incompetents. But they’re clearly lesser-caliber leaders than many of their predecessors. And not one of them impresses us as a visionary, master tactician or worthy standard-bearer for the party. DeLay’s death by a thousand ethics allegations only deepens this perception.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, especially toward the end of his career, sometimes lacked a fire in the belly for political brawling. But he was a figure of unassailable integrity and stature, with the experience and temperament to lead in the U.S. Senate. Newt Gingrich had his flaws — hubris foremost among them. But he was (and still is) a man of ideas and intelligence, who was capable of brilliant leadership. The current stock of Republican leaders suffers by comparison.
DeLay often gets credit for strengthening the Republican majority in the House. It’s this accomplishment — along with the fear of ending up on the wrong side of “The Hammer” — that helps explain why the party’s foot soldiers are so reluctant to ask DeLay to step aside. But of what use is a larger majority for a party that has lost its soul, or relinquished any credibility as a party of reformers? What good is a larger majority if a party appears to have been corrupted by power? What good is the additional power if a party has lost its bearings and all but abandons the core principles that made it a majority party in the first place?
Besides, we’ve never been convinced that the consolidation of Republican control in Congress is some ringing endorsement of these leaders or their heroics in the battle of ideas. For the moment, the GOP just happens to be the lesser of two evils. And we’re not convinced that this can be turned around until there is a purge of Republican leaders in Congress, beginning with (and without) DeLay.