WASHINGTON -- Last Wednesday afternoon after Tom DeLay's indictment was announced, the caterwauling began among House Republicans about their own decision of Jan. 3. By reinstating a rule that a party leader must resign if indicted, Republican House members complained, they had placed a gun in the hand of a Democratic district attorney frantic to use it.
DeLay, praised and condemned as the epitome of hardness in politics, had taken the soft position that the House Republican Conference could not withstand the abuse for having repealed the resignation rule. Democrats were archetypal hards, determined to use the criminal process to remove from power so formidable an antagonist. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle nearly flinched within the last month, but relentless determination to use the criminal process against DeLay moved Earle.
In today's polarized climate, both parties have contributed to the criminalization of politics. But Democrats, losers in both elections and the world of ideas, have turned to using the criminal process over the last two decades. That means depicting DeLay not as a mere reactionary politician but the cause of national corruption. This resolve was furthered by the reckless DA in Texas and a retreat by House Republicans.
The decision to reinstate the resignation requirement was the subject of Wednesday's closed-door conference of House Republicans. Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana declared that the Jan. 3 decision had empowered Earle. He complained that moderate members of the conference had forced the reinstatement. Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida said it was like putting a red cape in front of a bull.
Moderate Republicans, referred to as "weak sisters" by their House colleagues, are poorly equipped to deal with the politics of 2005. On this issue, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who through his long career has been all over the Republican spectrum, was the strict interpretation ethicist supporting the resignation rule. DeLay decided he could not subject his members to this kind of pressure, and restored the rule.
Earle's reputation was behind the decision by House Republicans Nov. 17, 2004, to end the resignation requirement. Under Texas law, Travis County (home of the state capital) has special responsibility for state election issues. That empowers Earle, an intense partisan Democrat who is routinely re-elected in Texas's most liberal county.