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Why The Delay, Tom?

This column was written by Matthew Continetti.
Tom DeLay wants you to know that his decision to stand down for reelection and resign from Congress by summer has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the investigation into the business practices of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty to corruption, bribery and wire fraud charges (among others) in January and who was sentenced to almost six years in prison (for starters) last week.

"I paid lawyers to investigate me as if they were prosecuting me," DeLay told Time's Mike Allen, who broke the story late yesterday evening. "They found nothing. There is absolutely nothing — no connection with Jack Abramoff that is illegal, dishonest, unethical, or against the House rules."

Instead, DeLay explained, his decision to bow out of American politics — an arena in which he was an unparalleled master as House majority whip and leader from 1995 to 2005 — is more about avoiding a nasty campaign against former Democratic congressman Nick Lampson. "This had become a referendum on me," DeLay said, "so it's better for me to step aside and let it be a referendum on ideas, Republican values, and what's important for this district."

This, even though his decision comes about 72 hours after his former deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty to corruption and bribery charges in connection with the Abramoff probe. This, even though DeLay personally made his debut in the numerous court filings re: Abramoff as "Representative #2" in the criminal information filed as part of Rudy's plea deal. This, even though his former press secretary, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty to related charges last November. This, even though his former chief of staff, Ed Buckham, is also under close scrutiny in the Department of Justice's public corruption investigation. And this, even though DeLay's last "resignation," when he told Republicans he would not seek to reclaim his majority leader post, came swiftly on the heels of Abramoff's January plea.

Here's what's puzzling: If DeLay's decision has nothing to do with the Abramoff investigation, shouldn't he have resigned from Congress earlier? Because other than Rudy's deal, not much has changed in DeLay's political life since October, when he was indicted in Texas on money laundering charges, and January, when he returned to backbencher status. In fact, less than a month ago DeLay won an overwhelming primary victory (60 percent to 30 percent) over Republican lawyer Tom Campbell, who drew attention to the former majority leader's ethics record. Shouldn't have that signaled to DeLay that he had a fighting chance against Nick Lampson, the Democratic candidate for Congress in Texas's 22nd District?

Yet what is most puzzling about the news of DeLay's demise is that numerous commentators are buying into the "nothing to do with Abramoff" line. Here's University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato: "My guess is that Tom DeLay took a cold, hard-headed look at the facts of the upcoming election, and he realized that ex-Rep. Nick Lampson was likely to win." Here's radio talk show host Mark Levin: "Despite the media speculation, the Abramoff charges have never had anything to do with him." On my way to work this morning, I heard similar sentiments from CBS's Gloria Borger and WTOP radio political analyst Mark Plotkin.

And perhaps they're right. On Sunday, Bob Novak reported that Abramoff has privately told friends and associates that he has nothing on DeLay. Over the last several months, I've heard the same thing from acquaintances of the convicted felon. And maybe the reports are true.

But, even if they are, what have Scanlon and Rudy been telling their friends?

Matthew Continetti is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of "The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine."

By Matthew Continetti
By Matthew Continetti