Just what was Tom DeLay saying?

It's important that Dems play their cards right on Tom DeLay's statement from the other day.  There's been a lot of talk about the not-quite-veiled threat that it represent:

Mrs. Schiavo’s death is a moral poverty and a legal tragedy. This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change. The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today. Today we grieve, we pray, and we hope to God this fate never befalls another. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Schindlers and with Terri Schiavo’s friends in this time of deep sorrow.

But while it's been widely circulated, it hasn't been widely parsed.

It seems to me likely that it's deliberately ambiguous; they're not off the cuff remarks.  It's a press release; it was planned for a certain effect.  It kind of seems like by "men responsible for this" he means the custodians of the "legal system" that he mentions in the previous sentence.  And certainly Sen. Lautenberg interpreted it that way:

I was stunned to read the threatening comments you made yesterday against Federal judges and our nation’s courts of law in general. In reference to certain Federal judges, you stated: “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.”

But it's not clear cut.  I'm sure this is intentional, so that if, say, Howard Dean accused DeLay of something, he can say that libruls are maliciously attacking him (wink wink).  Plausible deniability or something like that.  "I was just speaking in generalities; they have to answer to God and their conscience."

But I can't help but think that, gingerly but certainly, DeLay has crossed a line.  For a very long time republicans have been running against government:  'It's your money, you shouldn't want the government taking it.  Don't let Hillary Clinton tell you which doctor you can see.'  Which is to say that being vaguely malcontent and blaming your fairly trivial problems on a distant but omnipotent government is now a trope firmly implanted in contemporary political discourse. 

But very few are willing to go the extra step.  The ones who are, to use another common trope, are truly outside the mainstream.  They end up in anti-government militias.  DeLay seems to be deliberately moving his rhetoric in that direction. He must think that, even though the Schiavo case didn't work out for them, he can still shift public opinion in his favor.  It strikes me as a tremendous over-reach, and John McCain, among other republicans, senses that. 

The best thing Dems can do is seem calm and reasonable, even while reminding the country of DeLay's increasingly strident anti-government position:  We don't know why Majority Leader DeLay seems to be so dissatisfied with judges upholding Florida law.  We think it's important that our nation's judges, whether appointed by a republican or Democrat, interpret the law.  Maybe some republicans feels differently, but we think the constitution says it's important that our nation's government has checks and balances.  We think it's important to protect the integrity of the legal system, and we're sorry if Mr. DeLay disagrees.  We're the reasonable ones.  Why is Mr. DeLay so shrill?

Ted Kennedy's reaction was a good start:

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Thursday that "at a time when emotions are running high, Mr. DeLay needs to make clear that he is not advocating violence against anyone."

Which, if repeated with that air of benefit-of-the-doubtness, will force DeLay to either ignore the requests to make himself clear, in which case people will keep making it; or somehow acknowledge that his statement could have been interpreted as advocating violence.  Now, If only we could have someone beside Ted Kennedy do it...

All of this, I think, has implications for how Dems handle the judiciary as an issue generally (I think it's an opening in the debate), but that's for a different post.

-- Michael

[Edited for clarity and, um, spelling.]

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