Troubled Waters; War, Storms, Leak Probes-And a Growing Array of ETHICS CLOUDS. Dark Days for the Republican Party

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Byline: Howard Fineman and Eleanor Clift (With Michael Isikoff, Mark Hosenball and Tamara Lipper)

In the Tom DeLay era--now at least temporarily ended--a meeting of the House Republican Conference usually was a ceremonial affair, at which "Leadership" (always a single word, spoken with a mixture of awe and fear) clued in the flock on Done Deals. The proceedings had the spontaneity of a Baath Party conclave. But last week the erstwhile majority leader, and the rest of the Leadership he had forged since taking effective control of the House in the late '90s, was struggling to maintain its grip. The members applauded him as he proclaimed his innocence of the charge leveled against him: that he had funneled streams of laundered corporate cash into legislative races in Texas. They cheered as he attacked the Democratic prosecutor in Austin. And they didn't argue when he denounced the conference itself for having written a rule that barred him from continuing to serve as majority leader, even under indictment. Speaker Denny Hastert, ever the avuncular wrestling coach, gave a pep talk on the virtues of unity in adversity.

Still, when it came time to discuss precisely what would happen next, discipline broke down. DeLay and Hastert had wanted Rep. David Dreier to step in as acting majority leader. Instead, the hard-charging Roy Blunt got the job. Members demanded full-scale elections sooner rather than later for a new permanent Leadership, and if DeLay doesn't escape his legal problem by January--hardly a certainty--that vote will occur and he won't be in the race. Reaching for inspiration, one acolyte compared the Speaker to Robert E. Lee and DeLay to Stonewall Jackson: when the latter was wounded, the former still won a crucial battle. But another member elicited wry laughter by pointing out that Jackson had been shot, accidentally, by his own troops. Some backbenchers were gloomy and resentful, but unwilling to say so on the record, for fear that the vindictive DeLay might survive. "Leadership has become ossified and hopelessly out of touch," lamented one such member. "They only care about one thing, hanging onto their own power. I'm not ready to take them on, at least not yet, not unless I have to!"

The president's many visits to the Gulf Coast seem to have shored up, at least somewhat, his eroded standing. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, his job-approval rating inched up two points, to a still-dismal 40 percent. But, safely back in the White House, he now has to deal with another disaster area: Republican Washington. The list of official inquiries is long and growing, involving issues ranging from arguably excusable bureaucratic mismanagement to insider trading to allegations of lawbreaking that potentially lead to the highest levels of the White House staff. "Look, the Democrats' numbers are just as low as the Republicans' are," said James Carville, who helped guide Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992. "People see a lot of this stuff just as 'more Washington.' But the danger for Republicans and for Bush is that there are too many things they can't control--and the odds are that all of them aren't going to work out in their favor."

Bush and his fellow Republicans have little margin for error. Three forces--sky-high gasoline prices, the massive costs of rebuilding the Gulf Coast and ever-gloomier public assessments of the war in Iraq--have combined to weaken Bush's reputation as a strong leader, and leave him vulnerable to the kind of second-term fiascoes that tend to befall all presidents: think Ronald Reagan and Iran-contra, or Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Indeed, polltaker Frank Luntz, who helped develop the "Contract With America" message that swept Republicans to power in 1994, was on the Hill last week warning the party faithful that they could lose both the House and the Senate in next year's congressional elections.

The Republicans' power outage is real--and the historical irony is as vast as Texas. …