Most parents feel a twinge of anxiety at the thought of leaving their teenagers unsupervised for any length of time. It’s not that the kids are bad; it’s just that, set free from parental oversight, the urge to run wild can prove irresistible. The 1983 Tom Cruise hit Risky Business provided a worst- case template for how quickly things can spiral out of control: One minute, your super-responsible son is lip-synching Bob Seger tunes in his underpants. The next, he has wrecked your Porsche, turned your home into a brothel, and gotten all your furniture stolen by Guido the Killer Pimp.
For House Republicans, the breakdown in discipline that followed scandal- plagued Tom “The Hammer” DeLay’s resignation as majority leader last year was like Risky Business for the Beltway set—the legislative equivalent of the caucus stripping down to its skivvies and bebopping through the halls of the Rayburn House Office Building. (Caution: Do not attempt to visualize.) Absent DeLay’s heavy hand, moderates began thwarting the leadership on issues like drilling in Alaska and Medicaid. Members of the Appropriations Committee dragged their feet on Speaker Dennis Hastert’s ethics reform measure, prompting weeks of negotiations, a suspension of debate, and a series of eleventh-hour closed-door meetings. Even so, while there was the requisite grumbling about the new regime’s struggle to find its footing, many in the majority seemed happy to exchange a measure of effectiveness for greater independence— especially once the collegial John Boehner was elected majority leader in February. As Representative Tom Feeney told National Journal over the summer, “It’s a refreshing change for members to sit down with the leadership.”
Then came word of the Mark Foley communiques, and suddenly the keg party was over. The House GOP quickly erupted in a vicious storm of back-biting, finger- pointing, and ass-covering. It was the sort of humiliating public display that makes Democrats snicker and drives already anxious Republicans to weep. More than that, it vividly illuminated the downside of a caucus set free from years of tough-love supervision by one of the fiercest—and most effective— disciplinarians of modern politics. As Hastert stumbled and his deputies took turns knifing him in the back, House Republicans received a brutal lesson in what can happen when the Daddy party loses its Daddy.
A SCANDAL BASED on allegations that the House leadership suppressed warnings that a closeted member was preying on underaged House pages would have caused headaches for the GOP no matter who was in charge. But not even the most partisan Democratic strategist could have anticipated how completely the current leadership would come unglued. Hastert’s crisis-management efforts consisted largely of denying all knowledge of everything and blathering on about how this was a Democratic conspiracy orchestrated by George Soros, the liberal media, and, of course, Bill Clinton. Republican members and staffers spent their days issuing conflicting—even self-conflicting—statements about when the speaker was first told about Foley’s page-stalking hobby. (Three years ago? Last spring? Tuesday? On second thought, maybe it was only his staff that was ever briefed on this.) Members of the leadership, meanwhile, took turns savaging their wounded captain with an eye toward self-preservation (National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds), self-aggrandizement (Majority Whip Roy Blunt), or both (Boehner).
With the troops running wild and mutiny in the air, it’s little wonder that nervous souls began pining for their lost Hammer. “The infighting that Republicans say is going on now, they are absolutely convinced, would not be going on if Tom DeLay was still there,” reported “Hardball” correspondent David Shuster on October 5. Say what you will about the ethically challenged Texan, but he ran a tight ship. And, as much as he must hate seeing violence done to his dreams of a permanent Republican majority—a dream that ultimately cost him his seat—DeLay surely cannot help but feel a measure of vindication over the chaos that gripped the House exactly one year after a Texas grand-jury indictment forced him from the leadership.
With his inexorable blend of threats, favors, punishments, and bribes, DeLay made a formidable patriarch, keeping his caucus unified and remarkably under control—no mean feat in the rambunctious House. Admittedly, this often required aggressive, extended arm-twisting: for example, the time when the leadership kept a vote on the 2003 Medicare drug bill open for almost three hours past its limit—during which period DeLay himself allegedly promised a colleague that he would back his son’s congressional candidacy in exchange for his vote. From time to time, insufficiently family-oriented Republicans had to be taught a lesson by being stripped of their committee chairmanships, such as when the Veterans Affairs Committee chairman got uppity in 2004 and called for more funding for the Veterans Affairs Department. Not even DeLay’s real family was allowed to get in the way of the congressional clan he assembled: When his brother Randy’s lobbying career created headaches for him, the Hammer not only banned him from his congressional offices but stopped speaking to him entirely. As Randy recalled to The Washington Post Magazine in 2001, “Tom said, `I can’t afford you as a brother right now.’“ It was all part of transforming the GOP House into what one political scientist recently dubbed “a lean, mean partisan legislative machine.”
By contrast, DeLay’s successors have neither the skill nor the will to serve as family patriarch. Hastert’s fans and detractors alike portray him as a genial, low-key, handsoff manager who comfortably played the good cop to DeLay’s handcuff-them-and-beat-them-half-to-death-with-a-truncheon cop. Though the speaker’s admirers have been insisting for years that his power to persuade is greatly underestimated, without DeLay he lacks the threat of force to back up whatever negotiating savvy he may bring to the table. As one GOP lobbyist recently told The Washington Post, “Everybody in the caucus loves Denny. The problem is that nobody really fears him.”
Boehner is hardly better suited to assume the roll of strongman. Like Hastert, he rose to the leadership in large part thanks to his non-DeLayness—in this case, vis-a-vis the presumed favorite in the race, Roy Blunt. A close DeLay ally who had built a K Street fund-raising network second only to the Hammer’s, Blunt was ultimately seen as too close to his mentor. And so the prize went to Boehner, an affable guy who actually boasts of not twisting arms on votes and who characterized his open management style to National Journal this way: “I try to have a vision of where we are going, to have everyone on the team participate in the development of the vision, the mission, the strategy. ... It’s more inclusive. There is more listening.” Yeah, that’ll keep ’em in line.
WHEN DEMOCRATIC aide-turned-political pundit Chris Matthews coined the term “Daddy party” in these pages in 1991, he was referring to the GOP’s ideological focus on red-meat issues like law, order, national security, and moral accountability. But he might well have been referring to the party’s basic structure. Whether in the way they choose their presidential candidates or run their congressional caucuses, Republicans have a longstanding reputation for being more hierarchical and respectful of authority than their messily collegial Democratic counterparts. That tendency only became more pronounced after the 1994 GOP takeover, which undercut committee chairmen and centralized more power than ever in the hands of top congressional leadership. Moreover, the revolutionaries of 1994—and basically every election since—came to town loudly trumpeting their lack of political experience. Under the light touch of the post-DeLay leadership, with no one to tell them how to behave, these unruly amateurs have been left to step all over one another’s toes and generally muck up the legislative process.
After the Foley meltdown, it took the emergence of a stern step-daddy to restore order in the GOP caucus. On October 5, Vice President Dick Cheney offered a full-body embrace of Hastert in the Washington Examiner, and—presto!- -there came a swift end to damaging comments from the speaker’s lieutenants and devastating polls by Fox News tallying the seats that would be lost unless Hastert resigned. President Bush himself made a joint appearance with Hastert, and the matter was settled: The speaker would stay—at least until after the election.
Of course, the full extent of Hastert’s injuries—along with those of his entire caucus—will remain unknown until voters have their say next month. But, already, the Foley Follies have reminded us that the GOP’s famed unity and discipline of recent years didn’t flow from some innate wellspring of collective self-restraint so much as it was maintained by a handful of determined autocrats. Without them, Republicans are just as likely to go all self-destructively Lord of the Flies as, well, Democrats. Low-key leaders like Hastert and Boehner may be well-liked—even well-respected—by their colleagues. But being popular only gets you so far in Congress. As the Hammer well knows, sometimes it is more important for Daddy to be feared than loved.
That is, unless you want to come home one day to find the Porsche wrecked and the house full of hookers.
This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.