Article: Washington’s First and Last Lesson: Power Is Fleeting

From the April 9th New York Times:

The Nation
Washington’s First and Last Lesson: Power Is Fleeting

SENATOR TRENT LOTT, the former Republican leader, was headed out of the Capitol on Friday when he was asked to sum up a week in which Tom Delay said he would quit Congress, the House budget unraveled, the Senate immigration bill crumbled and President Bush became embroiled in the city’s most famous leak probe.

Mr. Lott hopped into an elevator and gestured toward Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a member of the current Republican leadership. “Our spokesperson will handle this response,” he said, evoking laughter from reporters as the elevator doors shut.

Mr. Lott’s deft disappearing act was just a taste of how odd life had become in Washington last week.

There had already been months of bad news: the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the political embarrassment over port security. But not until last week’s cluster of political crises did Washington’s Republicans seem to exhibit real self-doubt. Suddenly, the swaggering Alphas who run this city were turned into self-effacing Betas.

“A staggering collection of misfortunes and failures,” declared Harry C. McPherson of the week. Mr. McPherson should know; he has watched power ebb and flow in town since he came to Washington half a century ago as a Senate aide to Lyndon B. Johnson.

After years of remarkably efficient Republican rule, Congress felt last week like a free-for-all, as conservatives and moderates seemed liberated to pursue their own agendas, something they could never have done when Mr. Delay was their leader.

The sudden weakening of Republican knees on Capitol Hill also undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that Mr. DeLay’s announcement Tuesday morning — after months of insisting that he would run again — came just days after one of his former aides, Tony Rudy, agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in the Jack Abramoff corruption probe. In the Capitol corridors, there was a palpable sense that lawmakers were looking over their shoulder, wondering: Who’s next?

Still, with the November midterm election in mind, some Republicans actually seemed relieved. “He was a talking point that provided a political angle for the Democrats; that is now out of the equation,” one Republican aide said. But the talking point had also been the iron fist behind the Republican’s success, and some were wondering how they would get anything done without him.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert — whose rise to the highest post in the House had been orchestrated by Mr. DeLay — was a no-show at a press conference he had called in his office. Instead, he sent four other top Republicans to face the cameras.

“A great asset to our party,” said the new Republican leader, John Boehner, of Mr. DeLay. “A great friend and ally,” said the Rules Committee chairman, David Dreier.

Then, the quartet turned on its heels and walked off in unison, a row of gray suits growing smaller against the backdrop of a burgundy red hallway, with the press corps hollering, “What? No questions?” at their backs.

By week’s end, the wheels seemed to have come off the Republicans’ machine. The House leaders failed to get party conservatives and moderates to unite on a budget bill, so they threw up their hands and sent everyone home a day early for a two-week recess. Mr. DeLay, meanwhile, told The Washington Times that the new House leadership lacked vision and an agenda.

“Breaking up our leadership team has taken its toll,” Mr. DeLay said.

Here was the man who, having kept conservatives in power by his relentless insistence on party discipline, was now turning around on his way out the door and telling his former followers that they were falling down on the job.

“These guys went out on so many limbs for DeLay,” said the Congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein. “And now he saws it off just as they’re trying to get their act together.”

The Republican implosion was just as dramatic in the Senate. So many senators crammed into the press gallery on Thursday to take credit for a bipartisan pact on immigration legislation that the place looked like a New York subway car at rush hour. Then, Friday, the bill fell apart.

The Republican leader, Bill Frist, had staked his presidential fortunes on getting a bill passed, and he looked a bit ashen as he greeted reporters afterward. It had been “an interesting day,” he wanly remarked.

Finally, President Bush, at the other axis of Republican power, ran into his own troubles after court papers revealed that I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, had told prosecutors Mr. Bush had approved the disclosure of an intelligence report in 2003. This was at the very time the White House was trying to counter criticism that it had inflated the case against Saddam Hussein.

“Washington is broken,” Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, said Friday. “It’s not unlike a classroom in school, where the kids have gotten unruly and nobody’s calling them to order.”

But Democrats did not emerge unscathed. Representative Cynthia McKinney, the Georgia Democrat, made comic headlines after a scuffle with Capitol Police. Ms. McKinney, who is black, apologized Thursday on the House floor — but not before appearing on talk shows to accuse the police of “racial profiling.”

Ultimately, Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and 1960’s civil rights leader, told Ms. McKinney, “You need to come to a nonviolence workshop.”

The McKinney moment was a reminder that both parties have fallen victim to the gang-that-couldn’t-shoot straight syndrome at one time or another. Democrats lost control of Congress in the middle of President Clinton’s first term, after a series of crises that culminated with the failure of his health reform plan.

The question in Washington now is whether Republicans will do the same. No one knows, but the cracks that opened in the facade of one party’s power last week were a reminder of how fleeting that power can be.

“Most people understand that we’re on a merry-go-round and at some point, each of us will step off,” said Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia and the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. “Everybody’s time comes.”