By Dan BalzWashington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2005; Page A01
Bad news often comes in bunches, but for a Republican Party that not long ago looked ahead to an unfettered period of growth and expansion, yesterday's indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) represented one of the most significant blows the party has suffered in a year replete with problems.
Since the fall of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1998, no two Republicans have been more responsible for the GOP's recent electoral and legislative successes than DeLay and President Bush, a power tandem whose strengths have complemented one another repeatedly. Bush has been the party's public face, direction-setter and most effective campaigner. But in Washington, DeLay has been an iron force who bent the system to his will and priorities.
Over the years, DeLay raised and moved vast sums of money to buttress GOP candidates, kept the party's often-narrow majority together to move a Bush agenda that drew little Democratic support and changed the terms by which K Street lobbyists did business with Congress. With muscle and determination, DeLay ruled the inside game, and his indictment is therefore all the more significant -- a powerful symbol that the Democrats will attempt to exploit as an example of the GOP's abuse of power.
The indictment -- which Republicans say is politically motivated -- adds to the gathering headwind that now threatens the Republicans as they look toward the 2006 elections. Whether this becomes the perfect storm that eventually swamps the GOP is far from clear a year out. But Republican strategists were nearly unanimous in their private assessments yesterday that the party must brace for setbacks next year.
On almost every front, Republicans see trouble. Bush is at the low point of his presidency, with Iraq, hurricane relief, rising gasoline prices and another Supreme Court vacancy all problems to be solved. Congressional Republicans have seen their approval ratings slide throughout the spring and summer; a Washington Post-ABC News poll in August found that just 37 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job, the lowest rating in eight years.
On the ethics front, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is under investigation for selling stock in his family's medical business just before the price fell sharply. The probe of well-connected lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a former close associate of DeLay, threatens to create even more troubles for Republicans. Finally, the special counsel investigation into whether White House senior adviser Karl Rove or others in the administration broke the law by leaking the name of the CIA's Valerie Plame is nearing a conclusion.
Former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.) said yesterday that he thinks DeLay and Frist are victims of "bum raps," but he nonetheless said that Republicans should be worried by the prospect that the issue of corruption will become a central theme in the upcoming campaigns.
"I think that the Democrats are unable to exploit issues like energy, taxes and Iraq because they have nothing to say," said Weber, who remains an important GOP strategist. "The problem with the issue of corruption is the opposition party doesn't have to have anything to say. All you've got to be is the other party, so it worries me."
DeLay proclaimed his innocence yesterday, and many Republicans joined in charging that the indictment by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle was the work of a partisan prosecutor -- "the P.T. Barnum of the prosecution business," as former House member Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) called him. Frist, too, has said he was not privy to inside information and disposed of his stock simply to remove any hint of conflict of interest as he finishes his term and prepares for a possible presidential campaign.
What worries Republicans is the confluence of a large number of scandals when Bush and the GOP Congress are at the weakest point in years. In the same fortnight as DeLay's indictment and Frist coming under an ethics cloud, David H. Safavian was arrested in connection with the Abramoff investigation days after resigning as the government's top procurement officer.
At an earlier point, Bush could have provided political cover for scandals that touched one or another Republican elected official. But with his approval ratings in the low 40s, there is little to prop up the party's image when congressional leaders are under investigation. Already there have been signs that Bush's influence with members of his own party was beginning to wane as House Republicans look to 2006. Without DeLay in power, the prospects of further splintering increase, adding to perceptions of a party in growing disarray.
"Tom DeLay was like Tito in Yugoslavia," said James A. Thurber, a professor of government at American University. "He ruled with fear and also resources to reward people. Now without DeLay, the House will be balkanized."
Republicans spoke openly yesterday about their vulnerabilities. "There is a cloud until the cases are resolved, and the earlier we have a trial and resolution, the happier all of us will be," Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) said.
Some Democrats see growing parallels between what happened to them in 1994, when voters responded to a Republican message that power had corrupted the majority party and threw them out of power. But Paxon said the forces that uprooted the Democratic majority were far deeper and more powerful than today's conditions. "You're talking about a monumentally different environment," he said.
But former House Democratic whip Tony Coelho (Calif.), who left Congress under an ethics cloud in 1989, said Republicans now face the prospect of being branded by the same term Gingrich used against the Democrats: the arrogance of power. "He [Gingrich] used that against [then-House Speaker] Jim Wright and the Democrats," Coelho said. "That phrase is now coming back to haunt them. It is not whether anyone did anything wrong; it is the perception that develops, and there is nothing that they can do about it."
Tim Hibbits, an Oregon-based pollster, said the DeLay indictment by itself may be less significant in shaping the partisan environment than some others suggested, but he argued that it will deepen the disenchantment of swing voters toward the political system. For a multitude of reasons, he said, Republicans have much to fear about the year ahead. "I think the Republicans at this point are in more trouble than they realize," Hibbits said.
For Democrats, there were many cautionary notes yesterday, despite their obvious glee over DeLay's indictment. On a practical level, the House is now so gerrymandered by redistricting that far fewer districts are genuinely competitive, making the Democrats' task of scoring big gains there more difficult. Nor is there much evidence yet that the voters see Democrats as an attractive alternative, no matter how sour they may be about the Republicans.
But the DeLay indictment represents a powerfully disruptive force inside a party whose success has been built on discipline, cohesion and the mastery of the mechanics of politics at a time Republicans can least afford it.
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.