Criminalizing Politics

Last Wednesday afternoon after Tom DeLay’s indictment was announced, the caterwauling began among House Republicans about their own decision of Jan. 3. By reinstating a rule that a party leader must resign if indicted, Republican House members complained, they had placed a gun in the hand of a Democratic district attorney frantic to use it.

DeLay, praised and condemned as the epitome of hardness in politics, had taken the soft position that the House Republican Conference could not withstand the abuse for having repealed the resignation rule. Democrats were archetypal hards, determined to use the criminal process to remove from power so formidable an antagonist. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle nearly flinched within the last month, but relentless determination to use the criminal process against DeLay moved Earle.

In today’s polarized climate, both parties have contributed to the criminalization of politics. But Democrats, losers in both elections and the world of ideas, have turned to using the criminal process over the last two decades. That means depicting DeLay not as a mere reactionary politician but the cause of national corruption. This resolve was furthered by the reckless DA in Texas and a retreat by House Republicans.

The decision to reinstate the resignation requirement was the subject of Wednesday’s closed-door conference of House Republicans. Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana declared that the Jan. 3 decision had empowered Earle. He complained that moderate members of the conference had forced the reinstatement. Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida said it was like putting a red cape in front of a bull.

Moderate Republicans, referred to as “weak sisters” by their House colleagues, are poorly equipped to deal with the politics of 2005. On this issue, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who through his long career has been all over the Republican spectrum, was the strict interpretation ethicist supporting the resignation rule. DeLay decided he could not subject his members to this kind of pressure, and restored the rule.

Earle’s reputation was behind the decision by House Republicans Nov. 17, 2004, to end the resignation requirement. Under Texas law, Travis County (home of the state capital) has special responsibility for state election issues. That empowers Earle, an intense partisan Democrat who is routinely re-elected in Texas’s most liberal county.

Earle’s most notorious prosecution involved trumped up charges against Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. When Hutchison won a 1993 special election to the Senate, I was advised by Austin’s Democratic power brokers that she would never be elected to a full term in 1994 because she then would be under indictment. She was, but Earle’s evidence was so insubstantial that the judge tossed it out of court.

The party pressure on Earle to indict Hutchison was dwarfed by demands that he put DeLay in the dock. Texas Democratic politicians could not forgive DeLay for demolishing their last vestige of power in what has become a heavily Republican state: the gerrymandered congressional delegation. Earle impaneled five grand juries before finding a sixth to indict DeLay on a flimsy charge of conspiracy in financing his redistricting initiative. As recently as two weeks before the indictment, Earle was signaling that prosecution of DeLay was unlikely. According to Texas sources, Democratic leaders made clear this was simply unacceptable.

That most of Earle’s prosecutorial targets have been Democrats does not mean he is a straight shooter. A majority consisted of routine cases, but the big ones were tainted by politics. Earle lost a 1985 case against State Attorney General Jim Mattox, a political rival who accused the DA of using the case as a “stepping stone.” His 1992 prosecution that drove Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis out of public life was viewed in political circles as a hit job influenced by Gov. Ann Richards. Earle investigated but never brought an indictment against Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who once called the prosecutor “a little boy playing with matches.”

Earle’s matches last Wednesday set ablaze the normally well-disciplined House Republican organization. Within minutes after the indictment, Republicans were wrestling over the succession. Democrats are ecstatic. The criminalization of politics may work, even if the case against DeLay is as threadbare as it looks.