Revolutionary DeLay

Revolutionary DeLay

Mini Teaser: Tom DeLay may not see any problems with the phrase, "one vote, one person, one time", but the rest of America might.

by Author(s): Paul J. Saunders

Tom DeLay and Stephen Mansfield, No Retreat, No Surrender (New York: Sentinel, 2007), 189 pp., $25.95.

A SPECTER is haunting Americans-the specter of Tom DeLay.

DeLay has sought to remain a major voice among conservatives after stepping down from his role as House Majority Leader and, ultimately, from his Congressional seat. But his book, which is long on invective and self-justification but short on ideas, does little to advance either his personal cause or conservatism in general. The fundamental problem is that while DeLay tries to paint himself as a conservative, he looks much more like a revolutionary.

One can excuse some of his language, in that it is now commonplace to refer to the "Reagan Revolution" and "the Republican Revolution" of 1994. And while leaders in both cases sought to shrink government, lower taxes and implement other historically conservative values, DeLay seems to display only a zeal for political combat and little else. His ideological and semantic extremism, polarized and simplistic worldview, and confrontational style overshadow any elements of his personality or philosophy that could be called "conservative."

DeLay apparently fails to see the tension between being a conservative and being a revolutionary, a problem that reflects a broader lack of self-examination and intellectual curiosity evident in the book. And DeLay is not shy about admitting to this aspect of his personality. Writing about his reaction to the death of a childhood friend, he states: "I was not deeply introspective then, and I suppose I'm still not now." Similarly, DeLay's only real acknowledgement of his own limits (aside from his drinking and womanizing, which he chronicles but then brushes aside) is his admission that he was a tactician for the Republican Revolution, not a thinker. "I am not the charm" of the revolution, he admits, "I am not the voice . . . I am also not the mind. No, I am the strategist who takes the ideas and builds a way for them to become law."

If DeLay were more introspective, he might recognize in himself the makings of a Leninist Bolshevik-dismissive of Menshevik moderate Republicans' willingness to cooperate with Democrats; eager to serve as the revolutionary vanguard; seeking to raise the consciousness of ordinary Americans deceived by bourgeois liberals and determined to use any means necessary in the fight. Who knows? DeLay could even now be dreaming of his return to Washington on a special sealed train.

There is considerable irony in DeLay's revolutionary instincts given what he describes of his past. In fact, he begins the book with an event he describes as "among the defining moments of my life"-when, as a twelve-year-old, Tom DeLay and his mother, sister and brother were briefly detained by Cuban guerrilla fighters during a stopover in Havana en route from Venezuela to the United States in 1959.

In passages densely packed with fodder for Freudian psychoanalysis, DeLay describes the "sweaty foulness", "leering suggestiveness" and "wickedness" of the soldiers who held them-together with a few other Americans on their flight-and his mother's gradual emotional breakdown under the pressure. (They were held "for hours" and released, apparently unharmed.) This section is among the most useful in understanding DeLay's future course as a politician, and he clearly agrees; he writes that he often recalled the experience, even reliving the smells, when serving in the House of Representatives. "It has been present every time I faced down some liberal advance, knowing that today's liberalism is an early stage of the same evil I experienced in Havana."

One can understand why five years later the teenage Tom DeLay would have been electrified watching Barry Goldwater's 1964 speech at the Republican National Convention on television. "In a matter of less than an hour, my world changed forever", he recalled, because Goldwater "offered an alternate world. America is good, communism is bad. Freedom is good, big government is bad. Strength is good, weakness is bad." More tellingly, "Clarity is good, ambiguity is bad." And, he writes, phrases like "extremism in defense of liberty . . . resonated in my soul." Unsurprisingly, however, DeLay does not attempt to address Goldwater's later views, such as his famous 1996 comment to Bob Dole that "we're the new liberals of the Republican Party."

As his narrative progresses, DeLay draws progressively smaller circles around himself, separating himself politically from almost every Republican president in the last fifty years. The only exceptions are Gerald Ford, whom he ignores completely, and Ronald Reagan, whom he praises but never analyzes or even describes in anything beyond bumper-sticker terms.

To DeLay, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon practiced a Republicanism that privileged personnel over ideas. "They seemed to be saying to the nation that Republicans ought to be in office because they could run the Democrats' programs better than the Democrats could."

DeLay also writes that Nixon's "economic policies and expansion of government were closer to socialism than classical conservatism." While he appears to be referring in part to wage and price controls, on closer reading he seems most disturbed by Nixon's role in creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he sarcastically refers to as "a gift to America from the Nixon Administration." Eventually, DeLay reveals that his "anger" with the agency was "the determining factor" in his decision to set aside the bug-killing business and run for Congress in 1984.

President George H. W. Bush receives much briefer treatment; DeLay writes, "we young conservatives sensed that he didn't truly share our values", fairly citing Bush's abandonment of his "no new taxes" pledge as the key evidence. He attacks President George W. Bush several times with the (equally fair) charge that he is not a true conservative because "he has expanded government to suit his purpose"-yet he does not at all address the implications of his own willingness to engage in pork-barrel politics to "grow the vote."

The GOP's Congressional leadership fares no better. Its pre-1994 powerbrokers are uniformly described as ineffective and insufficiently committed to fighting the Democrats-in fact, DeLay compares them to "what I'd heard about Communists in Europe. They would sit around in coffeehouses and talk about what would happen ‘come the revolution,' but never do anything to make revolution happen." But like a true revolutionary, DeLay saves his harshest criticism for the leaders who served together with him, yet with whom he eventually parted company. He writes that he was "ashamed" of Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) for caving in to President Bill Clinton during the 1995-1996 government shutdown. He also terms Gingrich "an ineffective speaker" who should get "the majority of the blame" for the failure of the Republican Congress to do as much as DeLay wanted. Then-Majority Leader Dick Armey is "so blinded by ambition as to be useless to the cause."

In the end, very few Republicans appear to measure up to DeLay's standards of ideological purity. And in "My Political Manifesto"-the book's shortest chapter-he outlines an agenda that is simultaneously sweeping and poorly thought through, such as empowering the Congress to overturn Supreme Court decisions and repealing "all federal regulations that interfere with the function of the free market." He comes across as someone uncomfortable with the central conservative principle of checks and balances. Or perhaps as an over-eager College Republican who never grew up.

Less interesting than DeLay's point-by-point rebuttals of "Ten Liberal Lies You've Heard About Me" is that DeLay never considers that others could have legitimately different views about his conduct. Instead, every problem is a result of someone else's plotting or resentment. Thus, for example, DeLay describes admonishments from the House Ethics Committee as retaliation by Joel Hefley (then the chairman), whom DeLay and others blocked from becoming Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "Each time I received an admonishment from the Ethics Committee", DeLay writes, "I completely rejected their warnings." There is no doubt that many of the charges against DeLay were partially politically motivated as he claims, but even if one assumes that he is completely innocent, his boundless self-righteousness apparently prevented him from recognizing the difference between avoiding wrongdoing and avoiding the perception of wrongdoing-and from modifying his behavior accordingly at a time when he knew he was one of the Democrats' top targets. Sensitivity to this point could have done much to limit his vulnerability.

DeLay's defense of the much-reviled "K Street Project"-his effort to force lobbying firms to hire more Republicans and make more frequent contributions to Republican campaigns and causes-is somewhat more persuasive, in that he accurately points to the Democratic dominance of K Street lobbying firms after forty years in the Congressional majority. But even as some of his contemporaries, including Armey, have expressed discomfort, DeLay readily dismisses the ethical dilemmas raised by the plan. "The problem is not that there is too much money spent in politics. The problem is that there isn't enough money spent in politics. Americans spend more money on potato chips than they do on all political races put together, yet government determines just about everything in their lives."

Overall, however, DeLay's most corrosive feature is his eager demonization of his political opponents. After fairly pointing out that he himself has been demonized and hypocritically denouncing "the politics of personal destruction", DeLay compares "liberals" and Democratic leaders variously to socialists, communists, Castro, Stalin and Hitler. Apparently unable to see politics as a realm for legitimate differences of opinion, DeLay seems to believe that his political opponents want to destroy America rather than to offer an alternative view of improving and securing the country. In this sense, his greatest contribution to America is in shaping a public debate which is less and less about policy options and more and more about differing views of reality. Yet it is much easier to develop compromise policies than compromise realities.

Essay Types: Book Review