Tom DeLay’s troubled legacy

Tom DeLay leaves a troubling legacy for Republicans as they face re-election.

The Texan, once one of the most powerful and feared leaders of Congress, joined Newt Gingrich in helping to lead Republicans to power in 1994. But he became a symbol of the widening ethics scandal that now clouds GOP prospects for continued control.

Republicans face voters weary of corruption allegations and the heavy-handed tactics DeLay came to personify. At the same time, GOP candidates are further weighed down by President Bush’s low approval ratings and the unpopularity of the war in Iraq.

“It’s hard to believe that in just 12 years, Republicans could end up in the same situation that it took Democrats 40 years to get in,” said Republican strategist Frank Luntz.

Luntz, who was once Gingrich’s pollster and who helped orchestrate the 1994 “Contract With America,” a set of unifying GOP policy initiatives, said the GOP majority now seems “tired” and those speaking out for change and innovation “are just not being noticed.”

Republicans hold 231 of the 435 House seats. Democrats have 201. There is one independent and two vacancies.

DeLay said Tuesday he would resign from Congress rather than seek a 12th term so as not to hurt Republican chances. He acknowledged his re-election prospects were threatened.

The voters of his Houston-area district “deserve a campaign about the vital national issues that they care most about and that affect their lives every day, and not a campaign focused solely as a referendum on me,” DeLay said.

He had stepped aside as House majority leader last fall after a grand jury in Texas indicted him, accusing him of funneling illegal corporate contributions into state legislative races. In January, he decided against trying to get the leadership post back amid a spreading election-year corruption scandal.

Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, once a key DeLay ally, and two of DeLay’s former aides have pleaded guilty in a Justice Department corruption probe and are cooperating with prosecutors.

DeLay denied anew on Tuesday that he had done anything wrong. “I’m not stupid,” he said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” He said he had checked with lawyers to make sure every one his actions was within the law and House rules.

“My lawyers have been told I’m not a target of the investigation,” DeLay said. He said he managed his congressional office “by trusting the people I hired. Evidently, they mishandled that trust.”

The Texas congressman said hoped to travel around the country to help unify the conservative movement and hoped to remain influential in Republican politics _ something he suggested he could do better outside Congress.

“It’s quite evident to me in the last couple of months that being a rank-and-file member, I’m not able to accomplish the things I have been able to accomplish,” he said.

DeLay’s resignation “marks the end of a 12-year reign of unquestioned Republican dominance and casts a shadow on the chances of Republicans in the fall elections,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who specializes in Congress.

Under DeLay’s sometimes iron-fisted rule, House Republicans marched pretty much in lockstep during Bush’s first term, delivering one legislative victory after another. “Republicans, however loyal they may have been in the past, are now taking an every-man-for-himself attitude,” Baker said.

Congress draws even lower public opinion ratings than the president. An AP-Ipsos poll last month showed only 31 percent of those surveyed approved of the job Congress was doing, compared with 37 percent for Bush.

When people were asked if they wanted to see Republicans or Democrats win control of Congress, Democrats got more backing, by 47 percent to 36 percent.

Democrats have used DeLay’s legal problems and those facing other Republicans _ including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby _ to claim that Republicans are in the grips of a “culture of corruption,” an assertion they repeated on Tuesday.

DeLay’s resignation might help to take the heat off rank-and-file Republicans _ by removing from the scene an easy target for Democrats. But the Democrats signaled they were unlikely to change their focus whether DeLay was in Congress or not.

“Tom DeLay will leave behind a sad legacy of partisan political corruption,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

Further indictments and trials would help keep alive the “corruption” issue _ and DeLay’s role.

“As the Justice Department gets closer and closer to him through his aides, and if he is in more trouble, certainly the Democrats will use that,” said James Thurber, an American University political science professor.

Republican leaders, from Bush to House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, were generous in their praise of DeLay on Tuesday. And Bush told reporters, “My own judgment is that our party will continue to succeed because we’re the party of ideas.”

Bush and DeLay haven’t always seen eye to eye and are not close. Still, DeLay “has been a good soldier for Bush. And Bush has always said the right things when DeLay gets in trouble,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas.

But there are limits to what Bush can do at this point to help DeLay — or Republicans facing tight races.


Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

© 2006 The Associated Press