When he was making his name in American politics, as then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's political enforcer, Tom DeLay was confronted by fellow Republicans who urged him to embrace a bipartisan budget compromise. Borrowing an expletive from Dick Cheney, DeLay growled, "F — k that, it's time for all-out war."
DeLay's war on American democracy — which included not just radical gerrymandering of Congressional districts and the formalization of pay-to-play policy-making in Washington but the crude manipulation of the recount that made George Bush president — is now coming to a close. Under indictment, forced from the House leadership by scandal and faced with the prospect of defeat in November, DeLay has signaled that he will quit the House of Representatives that he has effectively run for the better part of a decade.
Histories of this dark passage in the American story will record that no political figure fought harder or longer to dismantle traditions of compromise and cooperation in Congress than DeLay, a man who targeted those with whom he disagreed as zealously as he had once gone after the vermin he chased in his previous career as an exterminator. As far as DeLay was concerned, the niceties of democracy were a cruel impediment to his new career path. So he went to war with the process itself on behalf of his own political advancement — and that of the paymasters in the industries he served more diligently than his Texas constituents, his conservative ideology or his Republican Party.
While it is surely the case that the Texas Congressman's career was in steep decline following his indictment on campaign-corruption charges and his forced resignation from the majority leader position, for so long as Tom DeLay remained within grasping reach of the levers of power in Washington, the prospect of a further dismantling of democracy remained all too real.
It is this truth that makes DeLay's decision to cheat the voters of his Texas district out of an opportunity to remove him from Congress cause for at least a measure of hope with regard to the harrowing circumstance of the American experiment. Yes, of course, it would have been satisfying to watch DeLay defeated on election day. But even the faint risk that this worst of all Washington players might have clawed his way back to another term in the House — and, with that, another chance, however remote, to again take charge of the chamber — was serious enough that the news of his decision to quit rather than fight marks at least a small turning point in the struggle to reconstruct the democracy that the man they called "The Hammer" so consistently and so brutally battered.
In Washington, where the press corps rarely chooses to examine the real political stories of the day, DeLay will be most commonly remembered for his scheming to warp the redistricting processes of his home state in order to gerrymander a half dozen Democrats out of seats they had won fair and square in districts drawn by a judicial panel based on the results of the 2000 census. His scandalous machinations did more than shift the character of the state's House delegation; they created the opening for a courageous prosecutor, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, to win the indictments that hastened the end of DeLay's reign of error.
There will, as well, be appropriate if incomplete discussion of DeLay's dirty dealings inside the Beltway — his "K Street Project" to formalize links between campaign giving, lobbying and legislating, his thought-policing of the Republican Party, his sex-crazed impeachment of a President he hated for being popular, his creation of a Potemkin Speaker of the House in the form of the bumbling Denny Hastert — and a few commentators will venture the "bold" suggestion that the Texan might have done a bit of harm to the integrity of the governing process.
But DeLay's crudest dismantling of democracy will be little mentioned today, just as it was barely noted at the time that he brought the hammer down.