It will surprise no one in Washington that former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is a sinner. His Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and DNC party chair Howard Dean have called him corrupt following indictments stemming from a fundraising scandal in Texas that forced him to step down from his leadership position. But Democrats are talking politics.
DeLay friend Mark Souder (R-Ind.) knows the former leader from dealings in the House and from a Capitol Hill Bible study. "I'm definitely a DeLay ally," Mr. Souder says. "I call him the greatest repenter I've ever met. He struggles with anger and aggression."
Does that make him guilty of the criminal charges, including two new money-laundering charges last week, brought by Travis County Texas District Attorney Ronnie Earle? No, but Democrats say Mr. DeLay's problems are emblematic of a growing tide of Republican corruption. (Multiple attempts to reach Mr. DeLay for this story failed.)
The cumulative effect of the DeLay indictments, investigations into a stock sale by Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, and ongoing FBI probes into fundraising by GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff are making conservatives nervous. What if, they ask, some of these charges begin to stick as the 2006 mid-term elections approach? "This gives us a long-term problem," said Mr. Souder, who says he believes Mr. DeLay when the former leader denies the charges. "We're all worried, but we don't know the stickiness of all this just yet."
But the bad news is clearly mounting. Sen. Frist's well-timed sale of Hospital Corporation of America stock in June (one month before the stock suffered a 9 percent tumble) has drawn the eye of SEC investigators. Mr. Abramoff, a D.C. power lobbyist for Republicans, has been indicted by three separate grand juries in Washington, D.C., Florida, and Guam. The D.C. charges hit closest to home for Republicans-Mr. Abramoff is accused of doling gifts and political contributions in return for political favors from top congressional Republicans, including Mr. DeLay.
Longtime GOP strategist and former deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee Eddie Mahe says conservatives ought to be worried not just about legal guilt, but also perceived guilt. "I would argue [perception] is more important. Right now it's on the front page. Suddenly six months later, there's a story on A-18 saying, oh, by the way, that previous story wasn't true," he said. "The perception has been set, is being set, and will last a lot longer than any exoneration that may come to light."
The ethics cloud hovering over the GOP has signaled open season for Democrats like Ms. Pelosi. Mr. DeLay's indictments were, she said, "the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people."
Democrats who talk big in the papers may want little to do with expanded ethics investigations. In fact, charges of endemic corruption in the Republican Party put Democratic lawmakers in a precarious spot. According to Washington Post reports, Mr. Abramoff not only paid for Republican lawmakers' trips, but also for powerful king-making congressmen Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).
Many Democratic congressmen, including minority whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), only disclosed expenses for lobbyist-funded trips once the targeting of Mr. DeLay made it an issue. The Center for Public Integrity-a nonpartisan watchdog group-says it was Democrats, not Republicans, who led the way in taking trips sponsored by nonprofit groups, occupying seven of the top 10 spots for frequent fliers.
But Mr. Souder says allegations of corruption matter more when they're levied against Republicans. "We're a party of moral absolutes," he said. "In some ways, if you don't believe in moral absolutes, then being a philanderer is almost expected."
Mr. Mahe said he worries about an electoral impact in 2006 elections, less than 14 months away. "If enough of these irritations continue to happen," Mr. Mahe said, "Republicans who are distraught, apathetic, or whatever just might not show up."