LOS ANGELES -- Walking out of a restaurant in Los Angeles last week, the former House Majority Leader was stopped by a stranger.
"Aren't you Tom DeLay?" the man asked.
"Yes, I am."
"I am so glad you are out of politics," the man crowed.
"Well, so am I," he replied; who says common ground is hard to find?
Starting with the biggest issue in Washington now, health care reform, DeLay predicted that the House and Senate will pass a bill, and the president will sign it before the end of the year.
The two chambers are still unresolved on what legislation they will put to a full vote, so I asked him how he could be so sure. He said, "The Democrats will do exactly what we always did, rewrite the bill over and over until they give all the members what they need to get to 218 votes. The Senate will do the same thing." It will, he predicts, be a straight party-line vote, and "maybe a few Republicans voting for it, but not many."
What does he think about the newest Senate version of reform, which does not contain a public health insurance option to compete with private companies? "This new bill is just providing political cover for the Democrats to vote for health care reform.'' He insisted that it "still has public insurance in it, just in other terms like the public won't recognize.'' Even in Lala land, the very idea of health care riled him.
"What they are doing to health care -- it's unconstitutional." How so? "The federal government doesn't have the authority to mandate small businesses," he said, referring to employer-funded health care.
DeLay originally ran for office out of frustration with regulations on his small extermination business. Way before he was known as the "Hammer," his nickname was "Dereg" -- short for deregulation -- and that's still part of his e-mail address.
"The only way any of this health care could be constitutional would be if the government allowed interstate choice so people could choose health care policies from any of the 50 states," he said. "So living in Texas, I could, say, choose a California health care policy if it was better than what I got at home." But, he added, "this will never happen; there's too much bureaucracy with state insurance agencies and boards to change that system."
Turning to the political landscape, I asked his predictions for House seats in 2010. "Republicans will pick up some seats in the House, maybe 20, but not enough to take back control."
Shaking his head with frustration, he added, "The Republican Party doesn't have the organization or leadership to take advantage of this dire political situation that Obama is in now. We have these grassroots sprouting up, but not the party organization to use them."
"Republicans are leaderless,'' he went on, "so we're just fighting each other instead of Obama's radical policies. There's no political leader of the party taking control. So, Republicans are just attacking each other for being too far right or too far left. Even Rush and Hannity are doing it."
So who does DeLay see as the GOP's up-and-comers? "No one," he replied in exasperation. "It's all the same old guys who were in leadership with me, and those old guys aren't the leaders the party needs."
He couldn't name one viable leader for the Republicans, saying that the party has no chance, "barring a miracle," of regaining the House or Senate next year.
On the economy, he blames the Obama administration's policies for high unemployment, and scoffs at the every idea of "government coming in to save the day. Government can't save the economy; businesses save it."
Pointing at a fast food restaurant across the parking lot in the seedy little strip mall where he'd been practicing, DeLay said, "Take the owner of that Wendy's over there. He's not hiring. He's not making anything new. Because he doesn't know what the future holds with the government in his business. He's scared, so he's doing nothing, so the economy is stuck in the recession."
As for the Obama economic stimulus package passed last February, DeLay feels "all that money has been wasted."
And the Bush administration's bailout of Wall Street? "That was a big mistake done out of panic," DeLay said of his own party. "They never should have done that. The markets would have stabilized in a few months if they had just stayed out of it."
His home state Texas has a hot governor's race on for next year, though "it's tough beating an incumbent governor in a primary.'' He said his old friend Rick Perry "has to worry'' about the challenge posed by his fellow Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison."I like him a lot. You know we served in the state house together, we go way back."
There was one more thing I needed to know, and with the ice pack under his foot melting and his professional dance partner waiting to get back to rehearsing, he himself cut to the chase: "Don't you want to ask me about Ronnie Earle?" Of course, he was referring to the D.A. who got a Texas grand jury to indict him four years ago, on campaign finance laws; Earle has yet to bring the case to trial, and DeLay has always called the case politically motivated.
So, what is going on with the case? "Well, I can't get my day in court, that's what's going on...Now it's been four years, one appeal after another, but it's still hanging out there. All Ronnie Earle ever wanted to do was indict me.''
Meanwhile, Earle has said he's considering running for governor, and "What do I say to Ronnie Earle? Run, baby, run. Run, baby run. And I will be at every campaign stop to tell my story."
Finally, I asked him about the Justice Department investigation related to the Jack Abramoff case, which has been going on even longer: "It's been five years. Five years. Those lawyers have everything of mine -- every paper, every e-mail – and still they have found nothing."
We both stared into the distance for a moment, then DeLay turned to me smiling: "OK then, enough about politics, I gotta go practice my waltz."
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