Justice DeLayed

Why neither side wants the House majority leader gone.

Democrats seemed delighted today when Tom DeLay had to step down as majority leader after the announcement of his indictment on a charge of conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws. The Texan and his GOP colleagues had anticipated today’s indictment, and last November they tweaked the House ethics rules so that when the grand jury spoke, DeLay would still be able to keep his leadership post. But after a public outcry, Republicans were shamed into reversing that clubby rule change. So today, DeLay was forced to take his medicine and step down. Score one for the minority!

Except that Democrats would have to be nuts to root for DeLay’s scalp, something many of them admit in private. He’s the best villain they’ll ever have. DeLay’s got troubles hanging from him like charm bracelets. Not only does he have the Texas mess, but he’s been knocked three times by the House ethics committee for misusing his post, and he’s been closely linked to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. At the level of personality, he positively oozes meanness, making him a perfect foil for Democrats. His poll numbers have been tanking. And now he’s under indictment. DeLay makes an even more potent symbol bookended by Senate Majoriy Leader Bill Frist, who is having his own ethical inquiries into his stock sales.

The one hope for Democrats is that DeLay is unlikely go quietly into the steam room for a sulk. It’s not in his nature. After his last round of troubles in the spring, he came out swinging. “This is exactly the kind of issue that’s going on in America, that attacks against the conservative moment, against me and against many others,” he told an audience at the Family Research Council.

Today, when he was indicted, DeLay did not disappoint. “I have done nothing wrong,” he said at a Capitol Hill news conference, “I am innocent.” He then went on to lambaste the Texas prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, repeatedly. He called him an “unabashed partisan zealot” and “fanatic,” and in a flourish that proves he was a former exterminator and not a lawyer, described the charges as “one of the weakest and most baseless indictments in American history.”

When DeLay goes zany like this, you’d expect Republicans to move toward the exits. I mean, isn’t a man that brash and full of scandal a liability? Not for Republicans. The party supported DeLay as it has time and again. “Everyone up here is rallying big time,” said one senior House staffer. “Congressman DeLay is a good ally, a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “I think the president’s view is that we need to let the legal process work.”

Why do they stick with him? Because they think he’ll be back, and he has a long memory. Tom DeLay is revered by both Republicans and Democrats as the best inside player in the House of Representatives. He knows who has helped him and who has not. He also knows how to make you pay if you’re in the latter category.

The president himself once used the Texas congressman as a far-right foil during the 2000 campaign. He argued that a DeLay-backed provision that would have deferred payment of the Earned Income Tax Credit to low-income workers was an attempt to “balance their budget on the backs of the poor.” Before coming to Washington, Bush knew that DeLay might become such an unwieldy problem that he would have to apply pressure to keep him from acting out. He reportedly boasted that he could do so because he knew “all the money-raisers in his district.” Now the president recognizes DeLay as a powerful ally when it comes to getting things done on the Hill. The administration has a notoriously low view of members of Congress. DeLay is the one person who can get results from the collection of fuzzy-headed and self-absorbed.

DeLay is also a folk hero on the stump. He raises gobs of money for GOP candidates, and conservatives love that he defies the elites and carries the air of having just kneed a partisan enemy in the groin.

The two-cheers-for-Tom parade was so well orchestrated it appeared precooked, which it was. With advance word of the indictment, Republican leaders met last night to arrange plans for a “Continuity of Operations” plan, or COOP, as they call it in the military. DeLay would step down and into his place would effortlessly slide David Dreier, the silky-smooth California congressman who now chairs the House Rules committee. “It’s an inspired pick,” said GOP pollster David Winston earlier in the day, before the plan fell apart. Though Dreier was not in the direct line of succession, he was perfect for Hastert’s purposes. He wasn’t aggressively angling for the top job, like No. 3 Roy Blunt, Mo., the House whip. And Dreier has far better TV skills than anyone in the Republican caucus, something that would be necessary to warm up the party’s image outside of its base.

But the best-laid plans fell clattering apart. Though Dreier’s pick had been wired last night by House leadership, and was agreed to by members this morning, by the end of the day he was out, replaced by Blunt. It was a quick and bloody business.

Social conservatives who dislike Dreier’s position in favor of stem-cell research started calling House leaders and members to lobby against him. “We do not find David Dreier representative of the values of conservatives,” said Jessica Echard, executive director of the pro-family group the Eagle Forum, which contacted members of the Republican caucus. The House “Values Action Team,” a group of GOP members tasked with pushing pro-life/pro-family issues within the caucus, blasted an e-mail to their colleagues alerting them that Dreier was to be tapped as a replacement and underlining his voting record supporting stem-cell research and against the marriage protection amendment.

Several Republican sources speculate that the ambitious Blunt put his allies in the socially conservative groups on the phone-calling campaign, and now that he has the job, won’t want to give it back if DeLay is cleared. Now, those are tactics Tom DeLay would approve of.