A couple of memories.
It is late 1995 or maybe early 1996, I am relatively new in Washington and so is the Contract with America, a list of proposed policy changes credited with helping the Republicans take over the House of Representatives in 1994’s historic midterm election. I accompany some reporters to a session with Republican representatives. They are filled with idealism, excited about initial legislative successes and happily plotting their next moves.
It is now several years later. I am having an off-the-record talk with a Republican political strategist, trying to understand why congressional Republicans are taking issue stances that seem to me in contravention of the principles spelled out in the contract. Sometimes, it is explained to me, you have to take positions with which you are not entirely comfortable in order to win elections so you can do good. The puzzle for me is whether you will ever get around to doing good if staying in power through such means routinely comes first.
All of which brings me to Tom DeLay, who played a central role both in formulating the contract and in betraying it. As a tough, ethically dubious majority leader of the House, he has been less an upholder of conservative causes than a Republican whose interest in keeping his party controlling things is the main thing that controls him. Now he has been re-indicted on criminal charges of skirting campaign finance laws. As a variety of conservative voices have said, his bad luck could be fortunate for the nation.
Even if DeLay is innocent and escapes conviction, some theorize, he will never again hold a top position in which he raises money from special interests in a manner that strikes some as only borderline honest. Neither will he be enforcing party discipline through dispensing favors or refusing them. His brushes with the House ethics committee and now the indictment will have made him a liability for Republicans who may come to see that their political glory of a decade back rested on the country’s trust in them, not a style of wheeling and dealing that has seriously eroded that trust. They may insist on different leadership, get it and rediscover their ideals.
To me, one of the most appealing parts of the Contract with America was the call to contain spending and taxes and thus reshape the federal leviathan into something more nearly resembling the limited government our founders had in mind. Not only does the economy benefit, but liberty has a better chance of surviving. Under the Bush administration, taxes have indeed been contained. But spending has gone wild, threatening a prosperity that has not only made some very well off, but that is required to reduce poverty, sustain advances in health care and improve education.
DeLay is not single-handedly responsible for this spending, but he has been an inspiration for it. He has tried to justify it. He has reportedly helped kill efforts to control it. The method in his madness is not hard to find. Giving gifts to special interests keeps them returning the kindness through votes and campaign contributions. Take home the pork, and many will love you for it. If the Democrats are scoring political points by demanding money for programs that never have worked and never will, don’t do the hard work of explaining the issue to the public. Cave in. Go along. Beat them at their own game.
Perhaps I am naive, but I have a theory that integrity goes a long way toward convincing voters to support you. Even if it doesn’t, doing what you deem in the national interest at the possible expense of your career is required of anyone worth voting for. Compromise as necessary, yes, as long as you aren’t selling out fundamental beliefs. And don’t be arrogantly insistent that you can never be wrong. But understand that you were elected to exercise your best judgment on behalf of those you represent in a manner consistent with philosophical positions you enunciated in your campaign, whatever the consequences to you.
Until very recently, people were talking about how the Democrats were all but finished. Now everyone is talking about how the Republicans are all but finished. My guess is that the party that does best in 2006 will be the one that decides to stand for something. Minus DeLay in a leadership post, but with the convictions of a decade ago, that could still be the Republicans.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)