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September 30, 2005



PAUL GIGOT: Texas Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader, left his leadership post this week after being indicted on charges of conspiring to break election laws. DeLay says he is innocent, but he's the first House leader to be indicted while in office in at least a century. Joining us to discuss the DeLay case is John Fund, who covers Capitol Hill.

John, the Democrats are clearly making ethics the centerpiece of their campaign against Republicans. How serious is this indictment for Tom DeLay, and for the Republicans on Capitol Hill?

JOHN FUND: For the Republicans on Capitol Hill it is serious if it plays into a larger theme the Democrats are trying to make, that the Republicans are in power for themselves, to self-aggrandize and to ignore the legitimate wishes of the people. So if this plays into larger themes, if Bill Frist, for example, were to get into more trouble with his SEC filing, which I don't think will happen, this could become a theme.

As for Tom DeLay himself, I think we have to separate the legal from the political. Legally this is a very curious case, and Ronnie Earl, as we will discuss, is a somewhat suspect prosecutor. But publicly, Ronnie Earl has accomplished what Democrats wanted. He has removed Tom DeLay from his position of leadership because Republican rules require that he step down.

PAUL GIGOT: Republicans are so far standing by Tom DeLay -- in part, because as John says, they know the record of Ronnie Earl. Tell us a little bit about that record, Kim. He has been known to make some very political prosecutions.

KIM STRASSEL: He is a political prosecutor. He has gone after K. Bailey Hutchinson, so is now one of the Texas senators. He went after Attorney General Maddox, and in both of those cases those two people -- he lost both of those cases. They were very embarrassing losses for him. But he's shown himself not to be above going after people that are political targets for him. And, in addition, he gets a lot of headlines from it.

JOHN FUND: A prosecutor who goes after public integrity cases has to himself be blameless. Ronnie Earl has very curious behavior. He's given speeches discussing his cases, attacking Tom DeLay, which prosecutors don't normally do. And now we've learned, Paul, that he has a television film crew following him around to do a documentary on his pursuit of Tom DeLay. This is very strange behavior for a prosecutor.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, Tom DeLay certainly incurred the political wrath of Democrats, because he is one of those people who helped turn the Congressional delegation in Texas around from a Democratic majority to a Republican majority through redistricting. So there's certainly a lot of incentive there, Dan, for Democrats to want to oust Tom DeLay.

DAN HENNINGER: Yeah, I would say so. I mean, this is -- you know, as Mr. Dewey said, "Politics ain't bean bag." And I think Tom DeLay's problems remind me of the Roman senate, where when an enemy reached a certain level of grandiosity they simply had to be eliminated. And Tom DeLay, has been, as they call him, "the hammer," so tough on the Democrats. He has instilled discipline in the Republican party, he has raised tens of millions of dollars for the Republican party. And he had become a real thorn in the side of the Democrats, and they had to figure out a way to bring him down and they're doing it.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, on that point, how indispensable to the Republican majority is Tom DeLay then? Certainly as a majority leader, and before that as a whip, he managed to keep the Republicans a very unified, cohesive force in the House despite relatively thin majorities. Are they going to be aimless without him?

JOHN FUND: In the short term, they're going to take a hit in fundraising, because Tom DeLay was a big fundraiser for the party. In policy terms, I don't think it's going to make that much difference. Roy Blunt, who's taking over his job while DeLay sits out, is a very effective whip in his own right. In addition, Paul, the last few weeks and months Tom DeLay has really been off his game. I think he confused partisanship with principle. And he was driving the Republicans in Congress to an image of a big government, big spending party, which I think was demoralizing the conservative base.

PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, there really hasn't been a lot of ideological direction and coherence that I've seen this year, and really going back two or three years. Now they do have a president in the White House, the Republicans, so they don't lead from Capitol Hill. But the president has, when he's tried to lead, hasn't been able to lead them on things like Social Security. There wasn't even a House vote on Social Security reform. Is this going to make much of an ideological difference?

KIM STRASSEL: I think there was a big feeling that the Republicans in the House in particular had become very focused on incumbency, on spending money to get re-elected. And you know, the best thing that could come for this from the Republicans would be that they use this now as an opportunity to get back on track and get focused. They're going to have a few opportunities coming up in the next month. Next week there's going to be a big push to pass some true energy reform. That's an opportunity. And you know, at the end of October the president's going to have his tax reform panel report, and there could be some stuff that they could do there.

PAUL GIGOT: Dan, we don't have a lot of time. But let's talk a little bit about the K Street Project, if you will, the so-called Republican machine that DeLay had generated. Is this going to dissolve that?

DAN HENNINGER: I don't think so. Not at all. K Street is where all the Washington lobbyists, the famous beltway. And DeLay had been very successful at putting more Republicans on K Street. And I think this relates to a central point here: for insiders in politics, it's important that the Republicans have clout in Washington at that level. But for most voters out there, especially in the Republican party, they see the lobbying in Washington as part of the problem. And to the extent that this will clear the air on that, I think it may be a very salutary thing for the Republicans.

PAUL GIGOT: That's right. The only way to beat the Democratic ethics charge is with substance, which is actually re-discovering why the Republicans won the Congress in the first place, which I'm afraid they've forgotten in the last couple of years. All right, thanks.