SYNOPSIS: Profile of right-wing extremist Tom Delay, the Majority leader of the House of Repesentatives and the most powerful man in Congress, who wants to reshape the United States in his own worldview
Last year I tried to illustrate just how far to the right America's ruling party has moved by quoting some of Representative Tom DeLay's past remarks. I got some puzzling responses. "Who cares what some crazy guy in Congress says?" wrote one liberal economist, chiding me for being alarmist.
Some crazy guy? Public images are funny things. Newt Gingrich became a famous symbol of Republican radicalism. By contrast, most people know little about Mr. DeLay, the House majority leader. Yet Mr. DeLay is more radical — and more powerful — than Mr. Gingrich ever was.
Maybe Mr. DeLay's public profile will be raised by his success yesterday in sabotaging tax credits for 12 million children. Those tax credits would cost only $3.5 billion. But Mr. DeLay has embedded the credits in an $82 billion tax cut package. That is, he wants to extort $22 in tax cuts (in the face of record budget deficits) for every dollar given to poor children.
But the really important stories about Mr. DeLay, a central figure in the impeachment of Bill Clinton, involve his continuing drive to give his party a permanent lock on power.
Consider the case of Westar Energy, whose chief executive was indicted for fraud. The subsequent investigation turned up e-mail in which executives described being solicited by Republican politicians for donations to groups linked to Mr. DeLay, in return for a legislative "seat at the table." The provision Westar wanted was duly inserted into an energy bill. (Republican leaders deny that there was any quid pro quo.)
There's every reason to believe that the Westar case is unusual only in the fact that the transaction came to light. Under Mr. DeLay's leadership, Republicans have established a huge fund-raising advantage, based not just on promises — special interests have always been able to buy favorable policies, but never so brazenly — but also on threats. Mr. DeLay pioneered the "K Street strategy," which — in a radical break with tradition — punishes lobbying firms that try to maintain good relations with both parties.
Then there's the Texas redistricting story.
Normally states redraw Congressional districts once a decade: Texas redistricted after the 2000 census. But under Mr. DeLay's leadership, Texas Republicans are trying to increase their advantage in seats with a second redistricting. This in itself is an unprecedented power grab.
But it gets worse. Texas Democrats responded with a parliamentary maneuver, walking out to deprive the state Legislature of a quorum. In response, hundreds of state law enforcement officers were diverted from crime-fighting to search for the missing Democrats — assisted, yes, by the Department of Homeland Security.
A telling anecdote: When an employee tried to stop Mr. DeLay from smoking a cigar on government property, the majority leader shouted, "I am the federal government." Not quite, not yet, but he's getting there.
So what will Mr. DeLay and his associates do with their lock on power, once it is firmly established? They will push through a radical right-wing agenda. For example, expect to see much less environmental protection: Mr. DeLay has described the Environmental Protection Agency as "the Gestapo."
Above all, expect to see the wall between church and state come tumbling down. Mr. DeLay has said that he went into politics to promote a "biblical worldview," and that he pursued President Clinton because he didn't share that view. Where would this worldview be put into effect? How about the schools: after the Columbine school shootings, Mr. DeLay called a press conference in which he attributed the tragedy to the fact that students are taught the theory of evolution.
There's no point in getting mad at Mr. DeLay and his clique: they are what they are. I do, however, get angry at moderates, liberals and traditional conservatives who avert their eyes, pretending that current disputes are just politics as usual. They aren't — what we're looking at here is a radical power play, which if it succeeds will transform our country. Yet it's considered uncool to point that out.
Many of those who minimize the threat the radical right now poses to America as we know it would hate to live in the country Mr. DeLay wants to create. Yet by playing down the seriousness of the challenge, they help bring his vision closer to reality.
Originally published in The New York Times, 6.13.03