Within hours of Texas Rep. Tom DeLay’s indictment, House Democrats were huddling and discussing how best to capitalize on the fall of the powerful Republican Majority Leader.
But rather than scramble to devise a new strategy and communications plan for the party, sources say Democratic leaders simply were putting a new headline atop their months-long offensive against the GOP for ethical misdoings and corruptive behavior.
“We don’t have a DeLay strategy,” said one senior Democratic staffer. “Our strategy is, and continues to be, to talk about the culture of corruption and the broad-based web of this. DeLay may be the highlight of it all, but the strategy is the same.”
“We don’t need a new strategy,” echoed a Democratic leadership aide. “This is a strategy we’ve been working for a year. It’s there, and it’s working.”
With their tactics in place, Democrats say they simply plan to stick to their current talking points, but do so in a louder, more concerted and coordinated way. Expect more Members to talk about Republican abuses of power, and to do it more often, sources said.
“We’re going to make sure people know what’s happening,” said a well-placed Democratic Member. “We’re going to keep talking about it, and keep reinforcing the [argument] that there is corruption here at the highest levels.”
Democrats say they began putting together the beginnings of their political offensive in 2003 when they pounced on allegations that Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) and his aides improperly attempted to pressure a mutual fund group to fire its top lobbyist, who was a Democrat, and hire a Republican in her place. Oxley denied any wrongdoing, and no formal ethics complaint was ever brought on the matter.
But the Oxley incident was just the beginning, Democrats say. Since then, the minority has lobbed charge after charge at the GOP for mismanaging Congress and the White House, abusing the rules, locking out the minority from calling hearings or having any influence over floor activity and holding open votes for unprecedented amounts of time.
In November 2003, Democrats shifted their ethics offensive against the Republicans into high gear. That came on the heels of a hugely controversial, three-hour floor vote on Medicare prescription drug reform after which charges mounted that then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) was offered financial assistance for his son’s campaign for Congress by GOP leaders buttonholing him on the floor, something Democrats were quick to label a bribe.
Smith claimed he was offered $100,000 in contributions for his son’s campaign to succeed him in the House in return for his support of the Medicare bill. While the elder Smith later retracted that claim, the ethics committee publicly admonished DeLay for offering to back the younger Smith in a GOP primary if Nick Smith voted “yes” on the Medicare bill. The former Michigan GOP lawmaker ended up opposing the bill.
“The Republicans have been providing us with example after example, only helping us to make the case,” noted another key Democratic source.
High-level Democratic aides and Members alike said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) have laid out clear instructions to the Democratic Caucus on how to proceed in the coming weeks. They have advised Members to keep their rhetoric focused not on DeLay individually, but on the GOP’s failure to run an ethical Congress.
In Pelosi’s Thursday morning message points, the leader told her Caucus that, “DeLay is just the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of cronyism and corruption at the expense of the American people.”
In the Pelosi e-mail document, the Minority Leader set forth a series of bullet points for Members to back up the message saying: “In the last few weeks alone, Senate Majority Leader [Bill] Frist [R-Tenn.] came under federal investigation by the SEC; Top White House official David Safavian was arrested; Karl Rove continues to be investigated for his role in the illegal outing of a CIA agent; lobbyist and close friend of DeLay, Jack Abramoff, was indicted.
Later, at a private Whip Meeting, sources said Pelosi reminded Members that Republicans — who are reshuffling their leadership lineup in the wake of DeLay’s departure — are in disarray. She said now is the time for Democrats to keep the pressure on, and at the same time, make clear that her party can provide better alternatives.
“It’s all about painting the larger picture of a culture of corruption — that’s the phrase everybody’s hanging onto,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “It’s definitely an advantageous issue for us, but we have to play it right.”
And Democrats also are privately encouraging Members not to go too far, recognizing the media will play a key role in advancing the DeLay story as details unfold.
“We need to let the Fourth Estate do its work here,” said one Democratic Member speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s almost rising to [Newt] Gingrich status. It has a long way to play out, but it’s getting there.”
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Democrats have and will continue to make the case that America needs checks and balances in its leadership, and that right now there are none.
“Our strategy is very simple: If you want the status quo, vote Republican, if you want a change, vote Democratic.
“That’s the frame,” Emanuel said.
“It’s not just DeLay, it’s about a one-party government,” added Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.). “Republicans have control of every aspect of government. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the old saying goes.”
While the larger strategy remains in place, Democratic House sources acknowledged that the DeLay indictment gives them an edge as the party tries to make its case to the electorate heading into 2006.
“There were two ways this could have gone,” one source said. “Tom DeLay’s indictment could have been the first moment Democrats were talking about the culture of corruption or it could have been just another example of the pattern of abuse of power that Democrats have been pounding on for months.”