TOM DELAY HAS BEEN so intellectually dishonest for so long that news that he may have been criminally dishonest hardly comes as a surprise. The question now is how much worse the political culture will become before it can get better.
DeLay’s indictment on a single count of conspiracy to violate state election laws has drawn predictable reactions from Democrats and his fellow Republicans. Democrats are enjoying the spectacle of one of the most partisan majority leaders the House has ever known losing his position. (Party rules require DeLay to resign as majority leader, but he can keep his House seat.) Republicans claim that their onetime leader is the victim of a political vendetta. Through it all, DeLay has remained his grandiose self, calling the charge “one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history.”
So anyone who hoped that the indictment would change the capital’s political culture can forget it. DeLay’s troubles also continue something of a tradition, dating at least to former Democratic Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, of ethical lapses among those in the leadership of the House.
But the real scandal in Washington, as someone once said, isn’t what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal. DeLay has practically made a career out of testing the boundaries on ethics -- and going far beyond them politically. The House Ethics Committee knows him on a first-name basis, having admonished him three times in the last year for activity that stretches back more than four years. The Texas grand jury that indicted him on Wednesday has been investigating possible legal violations by DeLay and his associates for months.
Yet DeLay is more than the sum of his ethical lapses. He also has a long history of hypocrisy. During the Clinton administration, he criticized the bombing of Kosovo, saying that U.S. foreign policy was “formulated by the Unabomber”; six years later he chastised Democrats for criticizing U.S. policy in Iraq, saying they were “putting American lives at risk.” His calls for the federal government to play a smaller role in Americans’ lives were betrayed by his demands that it intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo.
Hypocrisy is the occupational hazard of politics. DeLay, however, is a special case, a partisan so unprincipled that not even his allies pretend that he stands for anything; his nickname, “The Hammer,” comes from his ability to enforce party discipline. DeLay’s indictment will lead to an increase in demagoguery on both sides of the aisle. But the real problem isn’t what DeLay may have done, it’s what he stands for.