Cover Story

Cracking the whip

After a whipping by Christian leaders and a near revolt by conservatives dissatisfied with the slow progress of their agenda, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay swung into action, doing what he does best: making disparate factions work together, whether they like it or not. In doing so, Mr. DeLay may have single-handedly kept conservative Christian activists on board and saved the Republicans from likely electoral oblivion.

Issue: "DeLay: Cracking the whip," July 18, 1998

in Washington - A Capitol tourist who somehow eluded security and stumbled, unaware, into Tom DeLay's offices might well conclude that the Texas Republican is some kind of Marquis de Sade in pinstripes. Mean-looking, braided-leather bullwhips rest on wooden coffee tables and hang from the rich blue walls, clashing weirdly with the federal-style elegance of the room. The decorations are symbolic, of course-reminders of Mr. DeLay's role as House Majority Whip. As the third-ranking party leader in the House, he's the GOP's top vote-counter and arm-twister, the man charged with making sure there are no defectors from the Republican Revolution. "Herding cats" is how he describes his job. Mr. DeLay won his leadership position in a hard-fought, three-way race after the 1994 Republican landslide. With powerful representatives from Pennsylvania and Florida also vying for the job, many expected several rounds of balloting. Instead, Mr. DeLay's non-stop, behind-the-scenes hustling produced a first-ballot victory, despite the opposition of Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich. At least two things have remained the same for Mr. DeLay since that first leadership campaign: His relations with Mr. Gingrich are still strained, and he still hustles non-stop. On the day he was scheduled to talk to WORLD, his assistant was briefly unable to locate him. "He's not on the Hill," she told a perplexed press secretary. "He was supposed to be back 20 minutes ago. Nobody knows where he is." As it turned out, the boss was simply running late from an earlier meeting with Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), the House's most vocal advocate of impeaching the president. From the WORLD interview, he was scheduled to dash to a meeting with his leadership colleagues Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, followed by an appearance on the Oliver North radio show. From the often-cautious mainstream of his party to the apostles of impeachment on its right wing, Mr. DeLay constantly finds himself bouncing between two worlds. As a result, both factions within the GOP view him with suspicion. It's a thankless job, according to one staffer: When things go well, the top two Republican leaders get the credit. But when things go poorly, the whip takes the blame. Maybe the image of de Sade in pinstripes isn't so far off. Only a glutton for punishment could love this job. Come November, Mr. DeLay could well be out of the job. While his congressional seat is safe-he faces only token opposition for an eighth term-his role as majority whip is very much in question. If just 11 seats change hands in the fall, House Republicans will find themselves back in the minority position they held prior to 1994 for more than 40 years. Mr. DeLay has been there before, and he has no desire to go back. To him, the majority means everything. "It takes 218-plus votes to put the people in power to bring the issues that are important to us to the floor," he says. Without those 218 Republican members, the Democrats will control the parliamentary machinery on which everything depends. Republicans may not yet have been able to enact a ban on partial-birth abortion or an amendment permitting prayer in school, but at least they have been able to put such issues up for a vote-in the case of school prayer, the first such vote in a generation. "We never promised to pass the Contract with America," Mr. DeLay points out. "We only promised to bring it to the floor. The Contract was a bunch of issues that the Democrats would not even allow to come to the floor for a vote. Our friends need to understand that. It is important to have the majority." By forcing votes on the Contract with America, along with a host of other issues important to social conservatives, Mr. DeLay believes he and the House leadership team have kept the faith with the Christian voters who propelled Republicans into the majority in 1994. But not all of those voters agree. Unhappiness with the progress of the Republican Revolution came to a head earlier this year when James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, threatened to lead an exodus from the GOP if the party did not start paying more attention to the political agenda of conservative Christians. Mr. DeLay and Mr. Armey, both professing Christians themselves, immediately met privately with Mr. Dobson to try to reassure him of their commitment to conservative principles. That meeting only made things worse. Mr. Dobson accused the whip of being argumentative and defensive during their meeting, and he publicly renewed his threat to bolt the party. For Mr. DeLay, the breach with Mr. Dobson was not only politically dangerous, but also personally painful because of the spiritual debt he owes to the Focus on the Family ministry. "Like many young, ambitious males, I had pushed God aside and pushed my family aside all in the name of career," he told WORLD. "When I got up here, a member by the name of Frank Wolf had a ministry where he would go to freshmen and force them to watch Dobson's video called Where's Daddy? That video convicted me and showed me what a jerk I was and how far I had strayed from Christ." He says he "rededicated my life to Christ" at that point, becoming more active at the First Baptist Church of Sugarland and re-committing himself to his wife, Christine, and their daughter. Recently his commitment to family expanded still further when he opened his home to a foster child. To many observers, a DeLay-Dobson split was the worst possible sign of trouble in November. Conservative members of Congress regarded the majority whip with something approaching awe, thanks to his role in last year's abortive coup against the Speaker. When efforts to remove Mr. Gingrich fell apart at the last moment, some leaders of the movement jumped ship, claiming no prior knowledge of the coup attempt and swearing eternal loyalty to the Speaker. Mr. DeLay, on the other hand, acknowledged his role in the affair and said he was ready to accept the consequences. Grateful conservatives rallied to his defense, blocking efforts to have him removed from leadership. (For another coup leader, Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, it didn't go so well. He lost his position as the fourth-ranking Republican in the House and later chose to resign from Congress entirely.) With his conservative credentials untarnished, Mr. DeLay was widely regarded as the best hope for advancing a reform agenda and keeping Christian activists tied into the party. Instead, he suddenly found himself as the focus-perhaps even the cause-of a potentially disastrous breach of confidence with one of the most powerful leaders of the religious right. Despite what he viewed as a personal affront, Mr. DeLay immediately began doing what has made him an effective whip: talking to all parties, listening to gripes, building coalitions. His "values summit," held in May at the Library of Congress, brought top House leadership together with the heads of a dozen pro-family organizations, many of whom criticized a perceived lack of passion within the GOP. Participants emerged from the closed-door meeting with smiles that seemed to be more than merely pasted-on. One by one, family-group leaders approached the microphone to express confidence that the Republican Revolution would go on. Repeatedly, they thanked the Speaker and the majority leader for listening to their concerns and promising action. True to form, with things going well, the whip was rarely mentioned. Mr. DeLay faded into the background, lost amidst the back-slapping and hand-shaking. But the political pros-the staffers standing at the perimeter while their bosses delivered the speeches-knew that Tom DeLay very possibly had saved the day for the Republican majority. With only 11 members standing between him and that political netherworld known as the minority, Mr. DeLay is not ready to rest on his laurels. He knows that it will take more than broad smiles and positive soundbites to maintain control of the House. That's why at the end of the values summit he announced the formation of the Values Action Team, a select group of family activists that meets weekly with Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and other conservative members to coordinate strategy. The VAT is modeled on the Republican Study Committee, a small group that Mr. DeLay mobilized early in the Bush Administration to defeat the president's proposed tax increase. At a recent VAT meeting, Mr. Pitts moved briskly through an agenda that included partial-birth abortion, the Religious Freedom Amendment, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the marriage penalty, among others. On each issue, the 20 or so family groups in the room were recruited to complete specific tasks in the coming week, ranging from press conferences to phone calls to sending out letters and hundreds of thousands of postcards to grass-roots members. Clearly, the meeting was about more than just talk. When Mr. Pitts asked about action on a particular bill during the previous week, participants merely looked around the table at one another. "Did anyone do anything on this last week?" the chairman shot back testily. Social conservatives are unanimous in their praise of the VAT concept. It gives activists a chance to set the agenda on issues that are important to them, and it guarantees that a vote will be "whipped" once it reaches the floor, since the whip's office was in on the planning from the very start. Furthermore, it highlights differences among grass-roots organizations, blunting the criticism that the House leadership is entirely to blame for lack of action. At the recent VAT meeting, for instance, family-group participants could not agree whether to reduce or zero-out funding for the NEA. And on the issue of the budget, two participants volunteered to pressure publicly two other Christian organizations to come out in support of the Kasich budget plan that earmarked billions of dollars for the repeal of the marriage penalty. The VAT was something of a coup for Mr. DeLay-the Speaker reportedly was against the concept-yet he views it as only a first step. Once Christians learn to coordinate strategy among themselves, Mr. DeLay hopes to see them break out of the social-issues ghetto and form a broader-based conservative coalition. "We're trying to change the culture of this town," he says, "and part of that culture is what I call the coalition culture. The Left get it; the Right haven't figured it out yet. The Left for years have been working for each other: labor unions working for pro-abortion groups, pro-abortion groups working for environmental extremists, and so on. They even have an annual meeting where they come together and develop their leftist agenda. "Yet we cannot get the National Association of Manufacturers to work together to save the unborn. We can't get the right-to-life organizations to work to cut taxes. We can't get the Christian Coalition to work on environmental policy. We can't get regulatory reform groups to work on the marriage penalty. That's a huge disadvantage in this town." He leans forward as he talks, and his words spill out ever faster. Clearly, he's passionate about building coalitions. Yet he is also passionate about his convictions. He claims to be "as strongly pro-life as anybody in this nation, no exceptions." And even as he talks up the need for a broad Republican coalition, two green marble tablets bearing the Ten Commandments are visible on the window ledge behind him. He seems to embody perfectly the tension within the GOP between conviction and consensus-a tension that threatens to tear the party apart. Yet to Mr. DeLay, there is no contradiction between the two values. "I don't think they're mutually exclusive," he jumps in, before the question is fully framed. "You cannot win the issues that reflect your convictions unless you put together the coalitions to make it happen. There is a tendency of some to say all or nothing. Well, you'll end up with nothing, and our opposition will win. I say I'll take what I can get today and live to fight tomorrow. That's something I learned from the Democrats. They were very patient about taking over the world." To conservative voters impatient with what they see as the slow pace of change in Washington, Mr. DeLay has a simple message: "Give me more votes!" he urges, going nearly apoplectic at the suggestion that some Christians will stay home in November rather than vote for a moderate Republican nominee. "Our fight for conservative values is in the primaries, not the general election. We can fight like cats and dogs in the primary, but we should do nothing in the general that would jeopardize our majority. Christians should work for candidates that reflect their values in the primaries, but don't throw everything out the window just because we haven't accomplished everything in three and a half years." Still, he knows the clock is ticking. With only a few business days left this session, Republicans in Congress have very little time to convince conservative voters that their majority is worth preserving. So Mr. DeLay is cracking the whip more than ever, herding those wayward cats that would stray to the left. It is a vital test of his political skills: If Republicans don't respond to his whip, voters have the option to use their club.

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