In the field I used to work in, Colonial American history, one of the perennial questions was why the colonies were plagued by chronic political instability -- particularly, why the colonial legislatures seemed so intractable, so hard to organize or discipline. That's at least what it seemed like when compared to the Parliament in London, the body upon which each of these mini-parliaments modeled themselves.
There are innumerable explanations. But one focuses on the lack of executive authority and, underlying that, the lack of patronage available to those trying to gain and wield power.
A modern version of this is playing out now in the House of Representatives, and this article in tomorrow's Washington Post shows some of the centrifugal forces that are released when an effective patronage system begins to break down.
One of the great questions of the last decade is how congressional Republicans managed to maintain such unprecedented party discipline. The standard answer is that that's how Tom DeLay earned his nickname 'The Hammer', by squashing anyone who threatened to get out of line. Only that's not really quite how the House GOP Caucus functioned. Notwithstanding the reputation DeLay liked to cultivate, he worked a lot more with Carrots than Sticks. And that means money. Lots and lots and lots of money. A lot of it unaccountable money; a lot of it 'don't ask where it came from' money; but lots and lots of money, and as long as you were there with the caucus on the important votes, a lot of it would be yours.
You can't understand the K Street Project or the sort of slush fund Jack Abramoff was running without understanding that Tom DeLay had built a very effective patronage machine -- one that organized a great deal of the money in the city in the hands of the political leadership.
Most people now think that the Abramoff indictments effectively end any realistic hope for DeLay to reclaim the leadership. So the question is whether you end up with DeLayism without DeLay -- the same money and machine, just under a new boss.
On the one hand, you have acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt, who ants to push DeLay aside and claim the post for himself. But Blunt is a DeLay Man through and through, part of the machine in every way. On the other hand, you've got rebels who just don't think the GOP can get out from under these scandals without a real change in leadership and direction.
That's the fight the Post article talks about. But a big part of what's happening now isn't just which leadership slate takes over the House GOP Caucus. At a deeper level, the Abramoff scandal may do so much damage to the machine DeLay built -- by knocking out key leaders, exposing illegality and 'legal' corruption -- that whomever comes out on top may not be able to run the place with anything like the party discipline DeLay managed during his years in power.