A grand jury indictment has a threshold somewhere just above sea level. And on Wednesday, the levee broke for Tom DeLay.
But in any criminal prosecution, proof must be etched out on much higher ground - and perhaps even higher when partisan politics are in play.
DeLay, a tough Texas GOP partisan, has cause to claim his indictment on campaign funds conspiracy is politically driven. Prosecutor Ronnie Earle is an old enemy of DeLay's who has been trying to bring him down for years, and who also tried to bring down Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison with an indictment on the eve of her run for the U.S. Senate. That case was tossed out of court, and she went on to win.
Even so, if he's to beat the criminal charge, DeLay will have to say something besides "it's all politics." That is not a legal defense.
But DeLay's legal guilt or innocence is really beside the point for now. What matters is the political fallout. The indictment could damage Republicans' chances of maintaining control of Congress next year.
The average Jane or Joe may not care about the nuances of DeLay's indictment. They may not even know exactly who he is. But they do know that some "big cheese" House Republican is under criminal indictment. They may also have heard that another GOP "big cheese" in the U.S. Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, is being investigated on a stock sale charge like the one that landed domestic diva Martha Stewart in jail for six months.
Combine these shocks with the Katrina emergency-preparedness fiasco; cronyism at FEMA; insurgency violence in Iraq; and President Bush's declining poll numbers, and Democrats have to be loving it.
The best thing Republicans have going is that the elections are still more than a year away - time enough to recover, if they're lucky.
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