Facing the truth about Tom DeLay

Belatedly but undeniably, Washington’s Republicans are beginning to see the light. They see it every time they look into a mirror – and see the unsmiling, unapologetic mug of Tom DeLay looking back at them.

The House Majority Hammer has become the face of Republican Ethics – and it is not a pretty face. Politically, it is a downright ugly face, and finally, Republicans are beginning to get it. First on Main Street, then on K Street and finally, last Monday, on Wall Street, Republicans have been saying things that show they understand what regular people understood before them. DeLay has made himself the poster-pol for Washington’s standard ethical double standard: What is OK for me is attackable for you. Or, as I’ve said before: Ethics DeLayed is ethics denied.

Republicans now face the reality that DeLay will take them down with him _ unless they take him down themselves first. And that is what is happening even as we speak. On Monday, the conservative voice of the Wall Street Journal editorial page weighed in, influentially: “The Beltway wisdom is right. Mr. DeLay does have odor issues. Increasingly, he smells just like the Beltway itself.” The editorial called it “an unsavory whiff that could have GOP loyalists reaching for the political Glade if it gets any worse.”

The editorial listed DeLay’s many ethical transgressions or shady doings _ calling it DeLay’s “rap sheet,” so you know where they are coming from and where they are going. We’ll get to the list in a moment. But first, it is important to understand why DeLay’s face has become the face of ethics, or the lack thereof, within the Republican Party. It is because perception becomes reality, even when the guilt by extension is not always fair.

That is why Republicans who are now rushing to disassociate themselves from DeLay also sought to disassociate themselves from their own ethically indefensible actions when they chose to silently follow their speaker to protect their leader.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert started this year criticized for sticking his neck out to save DeLay. (Hastert’s only possible defense is a technicality _ he never had a neck; he’s an ex-wrestling coach whose head is nestled in gully between his large shoulders.) Hastert approved the replacement this year of House ethics committee Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who led the panel through probes that culminated in DeLay’s being rebuked for three ethical transgressions.

In one, DeLay offered to endorse a retiring GOP congressman’s son in a primary if the representative voted for the Medicare prescription drug bill. DeLay also sought to use the Federal Aviation Administration for political purposes back home in Texas, and he promised access to special interests at campaign fund-raisers.

Hastert also permitted DeLay to change committee rules so no more ethics probes can be launched by one party and, as the Journal editorial noted, by “packing the committee with loyalists.” Hastert also approved a rule change to permit DeLay to stay as majority leader if he is indicted in Texas, after three associates were indicted for money laundering and illegal contributions. That rule change was scrapped after public criticism.

Among DeLay’s ethical lapses, there were also junkets: A 1997 DeLay visit to the Northern Marianas Islands with his buddy, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who represented the garment industry there; DeLay returned and led a House effort for legislation the garment industry wanted. DeLay also took a $70,000 golf/business trip to the United Kingdom, paid for by Abramoff or a group tied to him _ with the cost reimbursed by Abramoff’s gambling-interest client. The list goes on.

Years ago, I invented a “Meese Measuring Stick” to calibrate ethical violations. When Democrats were attacking Reagan adviser Edwin Meese for minor slipups, I suggested they hold the Meese stick up to any fellow Democrat and measure an incident’s real severity by asking: If the Democrat committed that transgression, would they still attack it and demand a special investigation?

Now clear-eyed Republicans have seen the light about their own leader. Any day now, even their mum-and-myopic House leaders will be able to read the handwriting on the Capitol walls.

DeLay must go. And he will. Within months, House Republicans will have a new majority leader. DeLay will be banished to a backbench, hammerless. Or, if ideology, ethics and evenhandedness prevail, DeLay may find himself privatized back to Texas.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)