Tom DeLay is tired of hearing about the great Republican meltdown of 2006. Instead, he is more interested in planning his party’s next victory. “Everybody wants to talk about what happened and who’s to blame,” DeLay says. “It’s time to stop focusing on the past and start rebuilding for the future.”
DeLay has been out of Congress for two years now but the former House majority leader isn’t out of the game. He started First Principles, LLC, a political consulting firm, and a grassroots organization called the Coalition for a Conservative Majority. He still plots strategy with Republican congressmen on Capitol Hill. He even has his own blog.
Sitting in his homey offices about ten blocks down the street from the Capitol, DeLay is most animated when talking about his careful study of unlikely sources: George Soros, Matt Bai, and MoveOn.org. “The left is way ahead of the right in terms of communications, coordinated giving, technology, and the ground game,” he says. The website for his Coalition for a Conservative Majority sums it up this way: “The grassroots playbook that helped create the conservative majorities of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the Republican Congress of the 1990s, and George W. Bush in the 21st century failed for the first time to outwork liberals.”
That, DeLay maintains, is as big a reason for the GOP’s losses two years ago as any of the usual supects: Iraq, overspending, the “culture of corruption,” and earmarks. Just as the New Right honed its strategies and founded its keystone organizations during a period of liberal dominance, the left built a grassroots network of unprecedented size and funding after Bush won in 2000. But DeLay isn’t sure his fellow Republicans have gotten the memo. “I was praying for a long primary season,” he says. “With the race over in February, we didn’t have time to build the party.”
Barack Obama was able to assemble a formidable grassroots organization in all 50 states during a long and drawn-out primary fight with Hillary Clinton. But after his nearest competitors imploded or undermined one another, John McCain was able to rack up big wins on Super Tuesday without any comparable organizing. DeLay worries that McCain will learn the wrong lesson from his come-from-behind victory and conclude that groundwork is unnecessary.
Even so, DeLay doesn’t think McCain is necessarily doomed. “Obama is too radical,” he says, calling the presumptive Democratic nominee a “socialist” and a “Marxist.” But even if McCain wins, that won’t be sufficient for a 1994-style conservative comeback. “Conservatives will have to fight McCain too on issues like immigration, affirmative action, and global warming,” DeLay says. He warns that the cap-and-trade policies favored in varying degrees by both Obama and McCain could “destroy our economy.”
Since leaving the House, DeLay has been busy raising money for conservative causes, huddling with movement leaders over political strategy, training activists, and rallying true believers to keep the faith. The Coalition for a Conservative Majority now has eight active chapters, with hopes of growing across the entire country. Even more important to DeLay than reclaiming the congressional majority is defending Israel, another area where he has remained active behind the scenes now that he is no longer in office.
The circumstances of DeLay’s departure — he was indicted on campaign finance charges in 2005; he maintains his innocence and has yet to have his day in court — have attracted many critics, some of them conservatives who argue it is time for new, untainted leaders to step up to the plate. But the three men who led the House Republicans at the start of the 104th Congress — Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and DeLay — still loom large. For all their flaws and failings, they are more credible with rank-and-file conservatives than their successors who, despite showing signs of life in fighting Nancy Pelosi on the energy issue, seem to be increasingly reverting to their pre-1994 way of doing business.
DeLay once described Gingrich as the “visionary,” Armey as the “policy wonk,” and himself as the “ditch digger who makes it all happen.” So it is unsurprising that while Gingrich talks up his “Nine Acts of Real Change” and “American Solutions for Winning the Future,” and Armey emphasizes regulations and marginal tax rates, DeLay has devoted himself to the mechanics of actually putting together a winning electoral coalition. As the headline writers of the Wall Street Journal put it, “He’s a Hammer and the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy is a nail.”
In many ways DeLay’s task may be the hardest, especially given the tools the Hammer has at his disposal. Enforcing party discipline in the House isn’t exactly the same as keeping together a fractious group of economic, social, and national-security conservatives who have been demoralized by defeat and are still adapting to Obama after gearing up to fight Hillary. This may include the Coalition for a Conservative Majority, whose website contains more references to Hillary than Obama. The group’s chairman, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, was an honorable exception to the Buckeye State GOP’s unprincipled big-government drift, but his landslide gubernatorial defeat raises questions about whether he is the man to topple MoveOn.Org.
But DeLay is patient, confident, and under no illusions a party can be rebuilt in a day — or even an election cycle. “There’s an absence of leadership,” he says. “The grassroots is hungry for leadership.” Tom DeLay may be out of electoral politics, but he’s not against answering the call.