Strange Bedfellow

The Rise of the Front Man

Yet another reason to worry about Congress.

It is universally agreed that the resignation of Rep. Bob Livingston as speaker-designate and his replacement by Rep. Denny Hastert is a Bad Thing. For starters, the annunciation of Hastert, a politician who doesn’t cast a shadow, exposes the anorexia in the top ranks of the House Republican Caucus. The Republicans are so strapped for talent that they had to recruit a politician no one outside Capitol Hill had even heard of five minutes ago. (Incidentally, the House GOP’s top four leaders are now ex-wrestling coach Hastert, ex-college professor Dick Armey, ex-exterminator Tom DeLay, and ex-football player J.C. Watts. Who says American politics is dominated by lawyers?)

And, as pundits are fretting, Hastert’s emergence also reinforces the crisis over “the politics of personal destruction” (to use the day’s catch phrase). The sexual puritanism of the GOP’s own right wing undid Livingston, and Hastert cakewalked into the speakership only because he is–fingers crossed–above reproach. It’s uncertain whether sexual litmus testing will endure, but for the moment Washington is anxious. Many pols and ex-pols are predicting that smart, charismatic folks such as Livingston will now shun public office.

There is another, less talked about, reason why the ascension of Hastert is alarming. Call it the Front Man Syndrome. Most people would agree that in a well-run democracy, political power ought to be transparent. By this I mean that those who hold nominally powerful jobs ought to exercise correspondingly real power. Title and authority should be directly related. The president should be the most powerful person in the executive branch, the chief justice of the Supreme Court the most powerful in the judicial branch, the speaker of the House the most powerful in the House, etc. This transparency serves democracy, because it enables voters to hold the responsible officials accountable for their actions. You cannot hide. (American politics has not always been transparent. In the golden age of political machines, for example, bosses often occupied ostensibly unimportant jobs and left the glorious titles to their marionettes.)

But transparency may be a casualty of last week. If Democrats or Republicans fear that their leaders will be subject to personal attack–and they do–then there is a huge incentive for the parties to vest nominal power in squeaky-clean nonentities and hide real power behind the scenes.

H astert may be Exhibit 1. “Coach,” as he’s fondly known, has a history of modest service to his party and his district, delivering pork, opposing Democratic health-care bills, etc. Mostly he has been a faithful deputy whip to DeLay, helping “The Hammer” count votes in the service of the conservative cause. DeLay mobilized his whip organization to ensure his deputy’s election as speaker, and Democratic members are already wondering if Coach will be The Hammer’s tool.

It may be that Hastert will be thoroughly independent of DeLay–Hastert’s allies assure doubters that he is his own man–but what if he’s not? House Republicans will have placed a clean, good-natured speaker at the front of their parade, a bland and acceptable public face for the party. Hastert won’t cripple the party with a too-big mouth and too-big ideas, as Newt Gingrich did, and he won’t cripple it with an embarrassing history, as Livingston did. Meanwhile, DeLay will retain the only true power base in the House Republican Caucus: a 60-odd member whip organization, the best access to corporate campaign contributions, and a fearsome personality. The whip, who knows he lacks the charm and cooperative instincts required for speakership, will be able to run his operation quietly, behind closed doors. DeLay’s job will be secure, and he himself will remain (mostly) sheltered from strict public scrutiny.

This is, of course, pessimistic speculation. It is far too early to know whether Hastert will be DeLay’s puppet. And even if Hastert is DeLay’s puppet, that won’t necessarily mean that Congress has entered an era of puppetry. (A sample size of one does not an era make.) Still, it’s yet one more reason–as if we need another–to worry about what happened last week.