After two terms as America's first president, George Washington used his farewell address to preach the benefits of unity and warn his young nation about the dangers of "permanent alliances" with foreign powers. Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell address after his two terms in the White House, urged Americans to restrain the unaccountable power of the "military- industrial complex."
When Republican Representative Tom DeLay of Texas retired under fire in June 2006 after nearly twenty-two years in Congress, he chose to warn against a different threat: too much cooperation between the Democratic and Republican parties.
This might not have seemed a pressing danger to many in the Capitol
or anyone around the country watching the evolution of American political
life over the past several decades. On most issues, the two parties now
spend most days at each other's throats. On both sides, the number of
legislators who seek to build alliances across party lines, or even dissent
from their own party on key votes, is much smaller than a generation ago.
Reversing the famous dictum of Carl von Clausewitz, in contemporary
Washington politics often seems the extension of war by other means.
DeLay could claim some credit for that condition. A former pest exterminator
and Texas state legislator from Sugar Land, Texas, outside of
Houston, he was first elected during Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in
1984. Intently religious and devoutly conservative, DeLay always recoiled
from the conciliatory, deal-making style that House Republican leaders,
led by Bob Michel of Illinois, applied to their relationship with the Democratic
House majority in the 1970s and 1980s. But DeLay was also a skilled
practitioner of practical politics, accomplished at building the alliances
with other members that provide the foundation for advancement in the
House. In 1989, DeLay placed a bad bet when he managed the losing campaign
of moderate Ed Madigan against Newt Gingrich, the leader of
young House conservatives, for the position of minority whip. But DeLay
rebuilt enough support to defeat a moderate as secretary of the Republican
conference in 1992. And when Republicans gained control of the House
and Senate in 1994, DeLay won the whip job himself. (In the process,
he defeated the preferred candidate of Gingrich, who had advanced to
speaker when Republicans gained control.) When Gingrich stepped down
as speaker after the disappointing Republican losses in the 1998 election,
and his successor Bob Livingston also resigned amid a personal scandal,
DeLay demonstrated his rising power by engineering the election of
Illinois Republican Denny Hastert. Four years later, when fellow Texan
Dick Armey stepped down as House majority leader, the number two
position in the House leadership, DeLay replaced him without opposition.
Hastert was never the DeLay puppet some believed, but there was no
question that DeLay exerted at least as much influence as the speaker over
the direction of the Republican majority in the House.
DeLay operated with a broad vision and a precise attention to detail.
He worked relentlessly to tighten the links between the Republican majority
and the business community by providing the latter greater access and
ability to influence legislation, but he also pressured them to tilt their political
contributions more toward the GOP, and to hire more Republicans
as lobbyists. Inside the House, his principal priority was to maximize
Republican unity and minimize opportunities for Democratic influence.
DeLay's overriding goal was to advance the most conservative agenda
possible in a manner that framed the differences between the parties as
sharply as possible. He did not fear passing legislation on razor-thin party-line
votes; indeed, it often appeared that he preferred bills that pushed to
the right so far that they attracted only the bare minimum of votes required
to pass. Anything less meant the legislation conceded too much to those
resisting the conservative agenda, not only Democrats but moderate
Republicans. He was like a meat cutter who prided in his ability to slice
closer to the bone than anyone else.
DeLay succeeded to a remarkable extent in imposing his vision. Even
though House Republicans operated with a narrow margin of majority
throughout DeLay's years in the leadership, they moved their agenda through
the institution much more smoothly than Democrats had with larger margins
in the years before the GOP takeover. DeLay was so central to those efforts,
he earned the nickname "the Hammer" for his ability to nail down winning
In June 2006, though, DeLay seemed to be leaving the House one step
ahead of an angry mob. Over the years his hardball tactics had prompted
several rebukes from the House Ethics Committee. In the months before
his resignation, several of his former aides pleaded guilty to various offenses
in an ongoing investigation centered on Republican lobbyist Jack
Abramoff, who had earned millions of dollars in fees from Indian gambling
interests, and had shared the wealth in the form of contributions and
overseas trips directed primarily toward Republican legislators. Questions
continued to swirl around DeLay's own relationship with Abramoff, who
pleaded guilty himself to a series of charges and announced his intention
to cooperate with prosecutors five months before DeLay's speech. More
pressingly, a prosecutor in Texas had indicted DeLay, accusing him of
laundering corporate money through the Republican National Committee
to help elect a Republican majority in the Texas state legislature in 2002.
(DeLay intended the new majority to redraw the state's congressional districts
in a way that allowed Republicans to win more seats, which is exactly
what the legislature did the next year.) The combination of the Texas
indictment and the Abramoff investigation led restive House Republicans
to demand that DeLay step down as majority leader. When he was stripped
of that perch, DeLay decided to walk away from the House altogether,
and he resigned his seat.
So DeLay was bloodied when he stepped to the House floor to deliver a
farewell speech late on the afternoon of Thursday, June 8, 2006. But he was
definitely unbowed. DeLay began his speech with a few conventional observations
about finding inspiration in the great monuments to Washington,
Jefferson, and Lincoln on the Washington Mall. Then he turned in a characteristically
In preparing for today, I found that it is customary in speeches such as
these to reminisce about the good old days of political harmony, and
across-the-aisle camaraderie, and to lament the bitter, divisive partisan
rancor that supposedly now weakens our democracy.
Well, I cannot do that because partisanship, Mr. Speaker, properly
understood, is not a symptom of democracy's weakness but of its
health and its strength, especially from the perspective of a political
Liberalism, after all, whatever you may think of its merits, is a political
philosophy and a proud one with a great tradition in this country,
with a voracious appetite for growth.
In any place, or any time, on any issue, what does liberalism ever
seek, Mr. Speaker? More. More government, more taxation, more control
over people 's lives and decisions and wallets. If conservatives do not
stand up to liberalism, no one will. And for a long time around here,
almost no one did.
Indeed, the common lament over the recent rise in political partisanship
is often nothing more than a veiled complaint instead about the
recent rise of political conservatism.
The problem with Washington, DeLay continued, was not politicians
who compromised too little but those who compromised too much. "Now,
politics demands compromise," he acknowledged. But
we must never forget that compromise and bipartisanship are means,
not ends, and are properly employed only in the ser vice of higher
It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to
his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled
statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle.
For the true statesmen, Mr. Speaker, are not defined by what they
compromise, but by what they do not.
DeLay was nothing if not forthright. He had built his career on advancing
an agenda that sharply separated Republicans from Democrats,
often through means that proved as divisive as his goals. At the end of the
road, he saw no reason to apologize. If the reluctance to compromise was
the true measure of statesmanship, future generations would be dismantling
statues of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay and erecting them to
About three hours after DeLay finished his speech, several hundred
people gathered in a ballroom at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. The
people in the room agreed with virtually none of DeLay's views. Most of
them considered him an unethical zealot. Yet almost universally they
shared his prescription for political success. Just as DeLay wanted Republicans
to stand up more firmly against Democrats, the men and women
who gathered at the Riviera wanted Democrats to fight more fiercely
The occasion that brought them to Las Vegas was the first convention
for readers of the popular liberal Web site Daily Kos. Markos Moulitsas
Zuniga, a former Army officer, had founded the site four years earlier
while working as a project manager for a company that designed Web
sites. Thousands of people checked in every day to read his latest offerings
and the postings from the other "Kossacks," who congregated on the site
to trade political news, share outrage over the latest maneuvers from Bush
and congressional Republicans, and demand that Democrats resist the Republican
agenda with more fervor and commitment.
In every way the conference measured the widening influence inside
the Democratic Party not only of the Kos community in particular but
more generally the activists organizing on the Internet through dozens of
liberal Web sites, especially the giant liberal online group MoveOn.org.
The YearlyKos convention attracted not only readers of the site from
around the country, but the cream of the national political press corps,
officials from a wide assortment of liberal groups, and an impressive array
of Democratic leaders, including the party chairman, Howard Dean, and
the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid. Four Democrats at the
time considering a 2008 presidential race all made the long trip to Las
Vegas. On the convention's last morning, the assembled Kossacks received
validation of another sort when Moulitsas appeared on "Meet the Press," the
most watched of the Sunday interview shows.
Even with all the big names milling through the halls, the conference,
organized by volunteers, had an agreeably ramshackle feel. The hotel
looked like it hadn't replaced its carpets since the Rat Pack roamed Las
Vegas. The ceilings were low, the light dim. At the conference itself, most
people wore jeans and T- shirts. In a crowded conference room, liberal authors
lined up to sign books, and organizers for causes (a group dedicated
to organizing "the Christian left," a campaign to raise the minimum wage)
tried to recruit volunteers. One man arrived in a pickup truck covered on
almost every available inch with bumper stickers deriding Bush. "When
fascism comes to America," insisted the most pointed of them, "it will be
wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." In the hallway before the opening
session, one man wore a T- shirt emblazoned with a picture of Bush and
the words "I'm not with stupid."
All of this represented a physical manifestation of the fervent opinions
that filled the Daily Kos Web site every day. But in other ways the crowd
that gathered for three days of speeches, panels, and intermittent comedy
routines did not fit many of the expected stereotypes about Democratic
Internet activists. They were not especially young (there was more gray
hair than ponytails), they seemed to come as much from conservative small
towns (Elgin, Texas, or Fremont, Michigan) as the cosmopolitan centers
of big city liberalism, and they were not all die-hard liberals (though most
clearly were). The unifying thread was their passionate partisanship. Each
one that I spoke with over three days saw politics through much the same
lens as Tom DeLay: as a clash between political coalitions with views of
the world so incompatible that compromise was almost always misguided.
The names that provoked the loudest catcalls from the YearlyKos audience
were not Bush or any of his Republican allies, but Democrats the
crowd thought cooperated too much with the GOP. The declarations that
drew the loudest applause were calls for Democrats to fight Bush more
fiercely. "We don't want Neville Chamberlain Democrats," one speaker
insisted. "We want Muhammad Ali Democrats."
DeLay saw greater partisan conflict as a means of advancing conservative
goals. The Kossacks saw more conflict as essential to resisting conservative
goals and reviving a left-of-center agenda. Each vision derived
energy from the other. The more Republicans pursued the uncompromising
ideological agenda DeLay promoted, the more they strengthened the
voices in the Democratic Party that opposed any cooperation with the
GOP. The more Democratic activists pressured their party to pursue a
scorched-earth opposition to the GOP, the more they strengthened the
conservatives like DeLay who proclaimed it pointless to seek agreements
with Democrats. DeLay and the Democratic Internet activists who gathered
in Las Vegas could not have been more dissimilar in almost every
possible respect. But each sought to reconfigure their political party to the
same specifications -- as a warrior party that would commit to opposing
the other side with every conceivable means at its disposal. In that they
were hardly alone. Among the most ardent activists in both parties, the
only cause that attracted bipartisan support in the first years of the twenty-first century was the extermination of bipartisan cooperation. That reciprocal
passion has produced a political environment marked by unstinting
conflict between the parties and the virtual collapse of meaningful collaboration
between them. What this unrelenting polarization of political life
means for the parties, the electoral system, and the country is the subject
of this book.