Political operatives like DeLay are essential to the successful implementation of any policy, whether in democratic systems-where they must round up votes-or in undemocratic systems-where influential constituencies still make a difference. And DeLay was clearly effective in many respects. But when combined with the unfailing belief in one's own morality and the righteousness of one's goals, this tactical political skill has produced some of the world's most dangerous and destructive leaders.
Much of the problem with leaders like DeLay is that they are best as instruments of others rather than as leaders in their own right; "the Hammer" should not be left to wield itself. Moreover, as the saying goes, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Lacking a nuanced outlook or political philosophy, DeLay ultimately appears to have focused almost exclusively on the mechanics of power and to have given little attention-beyond clichés-to the nature, ethics or purpose of the power he amassed.
Needless to say, the Republican Party is not unique in producing figures like DeLay, and many of the same Democrats who loudly decry his tactics and views probably also secretly admire the illusory effectiveness he exemplifies. Some are even trying to replicate it. This, of course, is the real danger to America-that large segments of both of our major political parties focus almost exclusively on defeating one another rather than building a better country, either in foreign or domestic policy. It is also here that Republicans like DeLay fundamentally misunderstand the great appeal and success of Ronald Reagan, who had strong principles and was not afraid of a fight but also knew how to articulate and pursue a vision that a genuine majority of Americans-rather than 50.1 percent on a particular day-would support.
No one will win a war of ideas, whether at home or abroad, on the basis of polarizing politics and policies that energize those with extreme views and alienate centrists and moderates. Whether or not DeLay-or President Bush-realizes it, avoiding retreat or surrender is not enough to prevent defeat.
Paul J. Saunders is the executive director of The Nixon Center and the associate publisher of The National Interest.Essay Types: Book Review