Tom DeLay -- a man of consequence

Posted: Apr 05, 2006 12:05 AM

A couple of days ago, Tom Delay announced he would resign his Texas seat in Congress by June. His announced departure from office has induced the normal Washington hypocrisies. Democrats express delight but are actually disappointed, as his Texas congressional seat is more likely to now stay Republican and they won't have Tom Delay to kick around anymore.
Republicans express sorrow, but are actually relieved not to have him as an albatross around their party neck. And as someone who has crossed paths (and sometimes swords) with Tom ever since I started as Newt Gingrich's press secretary in 1990, I am of mixed feelings.

I first met him in early 1990, just after Newt had been elected Republican minority whip in the House of Representatives. Tom had been doing the vote counting for Newt's opponent, Illinois Congressman Ed Madigan -- the candidate of the old Republican House establishment. Newt was -- as always -- the insurgent candidate.

Tom Delay had come to make up with Newt after picking the losing side. Tom offered his loyalty in good faith, and Newt accepted it in good faith. They had never been close, but they were both smart conservative congressmen with common policy and party goals. Tom became an invaluable political ally and warrior for the Newt-led insurgent House Republicans.

Five years later, when Newt was sworn in as Speaker of the House, Tom Delay became the majority whip and a vital part of the successful election and legislative team that emerged in 1994. But Tom was an ally, not a subordinate of Newt's. He was his own freestanding political force, and inevitably rode his own course -- sometimes along Newt's path, sometimes not. (Just as, I might note, when Newt was minority whip under Republican Minority House Leader Bob Michel, he was only a sometimes ally of Mr. Michel.)

Even in a unified congressional caucus -- as ours was in 1994-1995 -- it is made up of diverse and conflicting personalities, strategies, tactics, careers and goals. As Newt's right-hand guy, I had my elbows out to match Tom Delay's own sharp elbows. But I admired his skill and his contribution to the common goals of the Party.

In 1997 (after I had left), Tom Delay led an unsuccessful rebellion against Newt (known at the time as the "Coup."), but retained sufficient respect of the rank-and-file members to remain as a powerful and intelligent force within the party.

By the winter of 1998, Newt chose post-election retirement rather than a battle to retain the Speaker's chair. Even as brilliant a leader as Newt had become more detriment than benefit to the Republican House members.

Politics is a necessarily tough business, and it is exceedingly rare that a party leadership post is given out of gratitude for past services rendered to the party. Whether it was Maggie Thatcher being thrown over as Tory Party leader and prime minister, Newt being forced out as speaker, or now Tom Delay being shown the exit -- parties have every right, and indeed a duty to its constituents, to mercilessly shed no longer useful leaders.

Even the immortal Winston Churchill was shown no gratitude by the British electorate after he had led them to victory in WWII and was then summarily defeated at the polls.

It became evident earlier this year that Tom Delay's time had come. Although he had been arguably the most able floor manager since Lyndon Johnson in the Senate in the 1950s, allegations-- fair or unfair-- undercut his capacity to further lead.

That is why on the weekend of Jan. 6 this year, party leaders quietly urged Tom to give up not only any claim on returning to the majority leader's slot, but also his now vulnerable Texas seat. That is why on the Jan. 6 broadcast of "The McLaughlin Group" I predicted that he would give up his leadership claims within a week -- and probably his house seat thereafter. He gave his leadership claims up the next day, and his House seat earlier this week.

But if a party has a right to act ruthlessly in its self-interest, it also has a duty not to cave to the other party or its media allies. A party should get rid of its leaders on its own schedule -- not its opponent's. That is why last year, when Democrats were calling for Tom's blood, I wrote a rhetorically violent column urging the GOP not to throw him over. The GOP did stand firm with him then -- and, in fact, gave him a big party. These things are a matter of tribal pride.

Tom has served the Party magnificently over the last two decades -- both as a principled conservative legislator, and as a shrewd and tireless political operator. And he has had the good judgment to exit on his own two feet. Both the Party and the country are stronger and better for all that Tom Delay has contributed.

So as a not-always-ally, I wish him Godspeed on the next leg of his journey.

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