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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The great unraveling

Comes now the news that the word schadenfreude was invented for (at least if you work in Washington): Tom DeLay, House Majority Leader, lightning rod for the conservatives on Capitol Hill and a political in-fighter with the charm of a raw pit bull, was indicted today by a Texas grand jury on a charge of conspiring to violate political fundraising laws. He is the highest-ranking member of Congress to ever face criminal prosecution.

As such, and according to the GOP’s own rules in the House, DeLay was forced to resign his leadership position, at least temporarily. House Speaker Dennis Hastert named Missouri Rep. Roy Blount to take DeLay’s position.

In one swift move, the Republican ascendancy in American politics may be said to be about over; the party reveals itself to be in the disarray some have suspected for months; the Bush second-term agenda is in tatters, forced to address long-term projects like the War in Iraq as well as sudden distracting emergencies at home; and George Bush himself, weathering more storms than anyone in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, is seen for what he truly is: a lame duck with more than three years left in his presidency.

In an analysis today in The Washington Post, Dan Balz reports that the indictment "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."

You can add the DeLay debacle to the growing list of Republican targets of opportunity. Last week, it was reported that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, long the picture of soft-spoken rectitude, was under investigation for selling stock in Hospital Corporation of America, a company started by his father, two weeks before the stock went south. The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced its intention to upgrade the Frist inquiry from an informal status to one with more teeth (like subpoena powers). Frist is said to be in talks with Martha Stewart on damage control.

Combining these two fresh disasters with the still-unresolved issue of possible administration involvement in the leak involving CIA agent Valerie Plame, and it’s obvious why the high-minded objectives of the president’s agenda for the second term – Social Security, extending the tax cuts, more aggressive prosecution of the war on terrorism – may well go begging until early next year.

To some extent, we’ve seen this before; this is part of the raucous but historically formalized kabuki on the Potomac, accusation and denial, charge and countercharge. The only curious development in all of this is why we’ve heard so little from the Democrats. Perhaps it was a matter of not wanting to go on the air shrieking with glee, but none of the Democratic leadership within the House or outside it – Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Russ Feingold – had anything to say when the indictment came down.

Maybe it’s just a matter of pacing themselves: there’s no telling how long this investigation of DeLay could last – almost certainly through the holidays, and no one’s paying attention to anything but the holidays then. It may be the Democrats are keeping their powder dry waiting for the spring, letting the Republicans twist in the wind until then.

The Bush administration may well try to pull a rabbit out of a hat, throwing the media spotlight off DeLay and Frist with a well-timed announcement of Bush’s pick #2 for the Supremes, maybe by the end of this week or early next. But with DeLay & Frist, Katrina & Rita, the Social Security drive stuck in neutral at best, gas prices climbing on a daily basis, the war grinding on and on in Iraq with no clear exit strategy, and some generals rejecting previously hopeful scenarios of a withdrawal early next year, what’s taking shape seems to be a great unraveling of the Republican fabric, a rise of scandal, arrogance, ineptitude and miscalculation leading to what’s likely to be a winter of serious discontent.

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