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April 7, 2006

The Last ''Radical Republican?''

Roy Meachum

The column's headline is probably premature. Rep. Thomas DeLay resigned Tuesday, as you know, having quit his House leadership post earlier. Using a 19th century comparison, the gentleman from Texas was at least this era's last Radical Republican.

Unfortunately history teaches there will probably be another. And another. And another.

Something about the GOP inspires its leaders to seek the extinction of Democrats in public office. Born on the eve of the Civil War, the party dominated Washington except for Grover Cleveland's separated single terms and Woodrow Wilson's presidency.

World War I's end brought a return of political "normalcy," as next President Warren Harding put it. The following 12 years Republicans rode roughshod, characterizing their opponents as former slaves, leftover Confederate sympathizers and recent immigrants, identifiable by their Roman Catholic faith. (Democratic nominee Al Smith's 1928 campaign was targeted on all three points; he was an Irish Catholic supported by blacks.)

The GOP may have reigned for another four decades if the worldwide Depression hadn't prompted Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election in 1932.

The later administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan blatantly set about eliminating opposition; that's what Watergate was about. George H. W. Bush lacked the charisma to stand up to Bill Clinton's, although many in the party believed his failure to take out Saddam Hussein was really at fault.

In the event, in an echo of the first Republican reign Mr. Bush the younger took office on the basis of a controversial vote-count. Attacks on lower Manhattan and the Pentagon provided an excuse to amend for his father's omission in Iraq; they also enabled the White House to label Democrats as "wishy-washy" and "soft" on terrorism to gain another term.

Above all else, the 2000 election profited from the GOP seizing control of Capitol Hill in 1994, on the strength of Georgia's Newt Gingrich and Texas' Dick Armey, who wrote the doctrine "Contract with America."

Tagging along, the junior member of the triumvirate was another Texas' congressman. Tom DeLay climbed to the top when Mr. Gingrich fell victim to a scandal and Mr. Armey publicly opposed the Iraq invasion.

For the past four years, Representative DeLay disciplining his majority Republicans has employed every legal trick to whittle away at what was left of the opposition in the Congress.

As in his resignation speech this week, the man known as "The Hammer" rarely referred to members of the other party without defining "liberal" Democrats. Once meant to convey how his opponents backed higher taxes in order to spend for social programs, the word seems hollow as the administration has fostered higher and higher deficits.

At any rate, the national growing despair over Iraq, the president's plummeting popularity and the treasury's tangled finances seemed to portend Mr. DeLay's weakening on the Hill. Once unthinkable, a congressional Democratic majority now seems possible.

Whatever his insistence on his integrity and ethics, the former majority leader has been unable to shake free of the latest political scandal, especially in light of his former associates pleading guilty to being entangled with once-super lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

In other words, Tom DeLay's leadership of modern Radical Republicans appears to imitate his 19th century predecessors.

Ben Wade, Thaddeus Stevens and Ben "Beast" Butler were forced to step aside, one by one, also in the face of growing scandals.

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