Just when you're on the edge of despair about the resilience of American democracy, an ancient pattern reasserts itself. People drunk with their own self-importance overreach and begin to destroy themselves. Names like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and Newt Gingrich come to mind. And now, perhaps, Tom DeLay.

The House majority leader is in trouble on several fronts. It would be one thing if he were merely dictatorial in the way he runs the House of Representatives. But dictators also habitually flout the usual rules of behavior. DeLay's ethical lapses are becoming a serious political embarrassment to his own party. As recently as last year, the House Republican caucus was willing to cover up for him by neutering the House Ethics Committee. Now, an old-fashioned influence-peddling scandal may take a toll. It's not that the Republicans are having sudden ethical qualms. Rather, DeLay is becoming a personification of right-wing excess that might prove useful to Democrats.

In his assault on the judiciary, DeLay's overreaching has backfired to the point of costing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist crucial moderate Republican votes in his effort to use the “nuclear option” of scrapping the filibuster rule. DeLay has brought disgrace on the larger enterprise of savaging judges, and moderate Republicans in both chambers don't want to be associated with him. His convening of an emergency session of Congress in a clumsy effort to wrest control of the Terri Schiavo case shone an unwelcome spotlight on just whom the Republican leadership is in bed with. Despite the vaunted religious upsurge and embrace of traditional values, one of those values turns out to be privacy. Most Americans don't want congressional zealots meddling in their private lives.

DeLay is also at risk of wrecking the Bush governing strategy. President Bush is well to the right of public opinion on most issues. His positioning has been a careful blend of right-wing policies and coded signals to the fundamentalist right, camouflaged in reassuringly mainstream rhetoric. He managed to get narrowly re-elected by relentlessly posturing as a moderate. DeLay, by contrast, is an in-your-face primitive, convinced of his God-given mandate. He doesn't have to get elected nationally, only to keep control of his caucus.

Despite Republican defections, including some distancing language from the president himself, DeLay is unrepentant in his effort to control the independent judiciary. He shows no signs of reversing his high-handed maneuvers that have turned the House into a rubber stamp.

In normal times, the Republican majority would worry that DeLay's excesses could produce major loses in the 2006 election. That concern would either rein DeLay in or force him out. However, the gerrymandering of Congress, some of it in Texas as part of DeLay's own grand design, has been so severe that at most 25 House seats will be in play next time. This means that the usual constraints on an embarrassing or dictatorial House leader are much diminished, because it is so hard for a shift in public opinion to cause the House to change hands. By historical contrast, when the dictatorial Republican House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon was ousted on a tide of popular outrage in 1910, Republicans lost 57 seats in the next election. As recently as the 1994 election, when Newt Gingrich led the Republican takeover, the GOP picked up fully 56 seats.

That kind of a swing is close to mathematically impossible today. Because of gerrymandering and the packing of voters into either reliably red districts or blue ones, a big shift in popular partisan sentiment yields only a small shift in House seats. So it would take a massive repudiation of the Republicans to produce Democratic control of the House, even though only 15 seats would need to change hands.

Obviously, the less the risk of DeLay's behavior costing the Republicans control, the less pressure his own party will bring to bear and the less appetite Republicans will have for reform. So the premise that DeLay is a serious liability depends on a more fundamental premise: that the U.S. House of Representatives is still a meaningful democracy.

Over in the Senate, several Republican lawmakers have lately observed that scrapping the filibuster rule is not such a smart idea, as they will be in the minority some day. This is heartening. At least some Republican senators are sufficiently committed to American democracy that they can actually imagine relinquishing power.

Not so DeLay. All of his moves as majority leader have been directed at conserving power and manipulating the institution so that he never will have to give it up. So just when you are feeling somewhat reassured about American democracy, the face of despotism and the fragility of democracy give you real pause.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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