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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Giving 'The Hammer' his due

Democrats seized by 'schadenfreude'


Tom DeLay
George W. Bush
Bill Clinton

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- The Germans have a word for the emotion that seized many Democrats after hearing of the criminal indictment on money-laundering charges of House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas.

The word is schadenfreude, which is defined as taking malicious pleasure at the misfortune of others.

It could simply be that Tom Delay and Democrats bring out the worst in each other. The Texan, proudly proclaiming his Christian faith, still admits, "I've never been able to understand that 'turn your other cheek' stuff," while regularly questioning the patriotism of Americans on the other side of the aisle.

It's a good bet that a majority of Democrats are convinced that DeLay would steal a hot stove and go back for the smoke.

Bare-knuckled political brawler

Yes, Tom DeLay is a bare-knuckled political brawler, capable of raising copious sums of political money from corporate coffers and successfully twisting enough GOP colleagues' arms that President Bush could secure House passage of his most controversial initiatives virtually on Republican votes alone. But both DeLay's admirers and critics frequently overlook the man's strategic sense.

In the informed judgment of veteran Democratic strategist Tom O'Donnell, who as chief of staff to longtime House Democratic leader Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri saw the Texan's skills up-close and too personal, "Tom Delay is an exceptional political strategist."

Clinton impeachment

Let me agree. In my judgment, George W. Bush never would have been elected president in 2000 if Tom DeLay had not single-handedly stopped the momentum in both parties toward a compromise such as censure -- instead of impeachment -- of President Bill Clinton after the 1998 congressional elections, in which the GOP loss of House seats led to the resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Back-channel negotiations between congressional Republicans and the White House had reached the point of contemplating a public apology by Clinton in the well of the House and the payment by him of a fine. It would have been a dramatic act of presidential contrition. Given the American voters' capacity for forgiveness, President Clinton's indefensible conduct with Monica Lewinsky would have been a non-issue in 2000.

To derail any compromise on censure and ensure the House's voting to impeach Clinton, DeLay organized and persuaded leaders from the religious right (who are mostly a lot more right than religious) to lobby House Republicans to back impeachment as the constitutionally prescribed course and also enlisted influential conservative radio talk-show hosts to oppose censure.

DeLay succeeded. The House did vote to impeach Bill Clinton, even though the Senate failed to convict. This meant that the tawdry details were further elaborated and amplified, and that George W. Bush, running at a time when by a two-to-one margin voters believed the country was headed in the right direction, could offer himself as a change not of direction, but of leadership, pledging to restore dignity to the White House.

"No matter what anyone might say, impeachment hurt Democrats politically," Gephardt said Thursday.

Gephardt remains impressed by DeLay's successful disciplining of House Republicans: "He refined the enforcer role. He took no prisoners, cutting off dollars to dissenters and putting people on -- or taking them off -- House committees."

GOP takeover of the House

After the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, Dick Gephardt had dinner with Newt Gingrich, where the defeated Democrat asked the victorious Republican just exactly how he had pulled it off.

Gingrich's one-word answer: "Money." DeLay took money-raising to levels unimagined by Gingrich, bluntly informing corporations that contributions to Democrats would hurt their cause in the GOP councils.

My favorite description of DeLay's successful formula inside the House is attributed to a Republican colleague by Michael Barone: "His whip operation is a cross between the concierge at the Plaza and the mafia. They can get you anything you want, but it will cost you."

That rings true, but it is also probably true that George W. Bush, who has never been personally close to Tom DeLay, would never have become president without The Hammer's keen strategic sense.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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