The firestorm that wasn't: Media notably incurious about choice of Blunt over Dreier
In the same September 28 broadcast in which CNN reported the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), the cable news channel also noted that under House rules, DeLay would relinquish his House leadership position. "It is expected, by the way, that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) will recommend that Congressman David Dreier of California step into those duties temporarily, into the majority leader position," CNN host Daryn Kagan reported during a news break. According to The Washington Post, what DeLay and Hastert wanted "was a timeserver, someone to hold the job but with no ambitions to stay in it," and an aide to Hastert approached Dreier earlier that week about of serving temporarily as majority leader. But the expected Dreier ascension was not to be. Conservative Republicans reportedly "erupted in anger" over rumors that Dreier had been selected, apparently forcing Hastert to change course. Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) reportedly made a personal plea for the job to Hastert, and the caucus ultimately approved him for majority leader. Dreier and Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) also will share some of the responsibilities.
To be sure, there are differing accounts of these events. A September 29 New York Times article reported that a Hastert aide "had already chosen Mr. Blunt before the conservatives voiced their objections." Dreier himself claimed on the September 29 broadcast of PBS' The Charlie Rose Show that he never wanted the interim position:
ROSE: Did you want the job?
DREIER: No, no, I didn't. In fact, I said from the very beginning I didn't. I would have had to give up the chairmanship of the Rules Committee under the rules that we have. Roy Blunt does not have to give that up. And this is not something that I pursued. I mean, yes, I was talked to about this, and, frankly, I said no, that I didn't want to do it --
For his part, Blunt is a questionable choice to assume a position vacated for alleged ethical violations. Indeed, he has faced ethics questions of his own: Blunt previously attempted to add a provision that would benefit Phillip Morris Companies Inc. to the bill establishing the Department of Homeland Security. Phillip Morris had contributed to Blunt's campaigns, and Blunt has personal ties to the tobacco giant through his son, an employee of Phillip Morris, and through his "personal relationship" with Abigail Perlman, a lobbyist for Altria Inc., the parent company of Phillip Morris. According to a September 29 Associated Press report, Blunt and Perlman later married. More recently, Blunt's political action committee paid nearly $88,000 in fees to a consultant indicted along with DeLay.
CNN host Candy Crowley said that turmoil over DeLay's replacement indicated "fractures" in the Republican caucus. Yet even those media who reported in some detail that Dreier was Hastert's choice and that Blunt eventually prevailed have been notably reticent in exploring the Republicans' motivations in selecting Blunt over Dreier -- if, in fact, that's what occurred. For example, The Washington Post reported only that conservatives in the caucus regard Dreier as "too moderate." The Los Angeles Times noted that Dreier was considered "'squishy' on social issues, such as immigration and abortion," and the AP added that Dreier was passed over because he "had voted in favor of expanded federal funding for stem cell research and against a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage."
Among mainstream media, only two publications that Media Matters for America could identify -- Salon.com and The American Prospect's weblog, TAPPED -- challenged the Republicans' stated reasons for Dreier's purported rejection. TAPPED's Matthew Yglesias pointed out that, contrary to Republican claims that Dreier was too moderate: "Dreier has a lifetime 92 rating from the American Conservative Union. Compare that to 96 for Tom DeLay and 94 for Roy Blunt and it's hard to see what the big deal is." Both referred to rumors -- in Yglesias's case, obliquely -- that Dreier is gay and suggested that those rumors may have had something to do with Dreier's rejection. Noting those rumors, Tim Grieve of Salon wrote:
Well, it turns out that Dreier was in fact going to become the new House majority leader and that his elevation did, in fact, come to a speedy stop because religious conservatives had an issue with him. Here's the question: Are they now speaking in code about what it is?
The reported passing over of Hastert's first choice in favor of openly ambitious, ethically challenged Blunt would seemingly strike some political reporters as significant. The events of the day, called "wild" by The Washington Post, and, according to CNN, indicative of "fractures" in the famously lockstep Republican caucus, would seem to invite more inquiry than they have received. And, yet, the media reporting on these events have been satisfied with caucus members' bland explanations for defying the speaker of the House and installing someone who clearly brings his own "baggage" to the job. Dreier -- chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee -- is "too moderate"? "Squishy" on abortion and stem cells? And the media simply accept these banalities?
From a September 30 article in the Chicago Tribune:
For example, Hastert had hoped to temporarily replace DeLay as majority leader with Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the Rules Committee and an affable leader who would step aside should DeLay be cleared and seek to return to his post. Conservatives, who do not consider Dreier one of them, cried foul, and Hastert relented, elevating Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the majority whip.
From the September 29 edition of The New York Times:
House Republicans gathered within hours of the indictment's becoming public, and chose Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 House Republican, to assume Mr. DeLay's duties temporarily. They assigned Representative David Dreier of California to take on more responsibilities. Party rules required Mr. DeLay to step down if indicted.
Earlier in the day, there had been indications that Mr. Dreier might be named to Mr. DeLay's place temporarily, which did not sit well with some House conservatives. But a Congressional aide said Wednesday night that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert had already chosen Mr. Blunt before the conservatives voiced their objections.
From the September 29 edition of The Boston Globe:
Within hours of the indictment, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert arranged a power-sharing arrangement designed to show Republicans' support for DeLay. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the House Republican whip, will be the ''temporary" majority leader, and two other GOP lawmakers -- the deputy whip, Eric Cantor of Virginia, and the Rules Committee chairman, David Dreier of California -- will share DeLay's former responsibilities.
From the September 29 edition of the Chicago Tribune:
House Republicans quickly gathered behind closed doors to elect new leaders. Speaker Hastert's first choice, to temporarily install Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) in the majority leader's office, fell apart shortly beforehand, GOP sources said.
Sources said Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) went to the speaker and said he wanted the job. And fiscal conservatives also expressed displeasure, concerned that Dreier, chairman of the Rules Committee, was not in sync with their goals.
From the Associated Press, September 29:
At the same time, conservative lawmakers quickly made known their unhappiness when reports circulated that Hastert was on the verge of recommending that Rep. David Dreier of California assume most of the duties of majority leader.
"There was a lot of discussion in that room about, Will ... he advance the conservative agenda?" said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who attended the meeting and said he personally would have been comfortable with Dreier in the post.
Other officials said a show of hands near the end of the session showed support for a postponement in selecting a temporary majority leader if it were to be Dreier. A delegation was dispatched to inform Hastert, who in the meantime had decided to recommend Blunt instead.
Several Republican sources said a top aide to Hastert contacted Dreier on Monday to discuss assuming new leadership duties in the event DeLay was indicted. Some GOP lawmakers, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had been told [sic] speaker would turn to the Californian to assume many of DeLay's duties.
One GOP leadership aide said Dreier never received the offer of a job from Hastert. Dreier did not directly respond to a question on the subject. "We were in discussions as to what the best way to work this thing out was, and frankly I've never aspired to an elected position" in the leadership, he said.
From the August 29 edition of the Los Angeles Times:
House aides said that Dreier was initially considered for the lead role, but that some lawmakers complained about bypassing Blunt, who as the No. 3 official in the GOP hierarchy was next in line to succeed DeLay. Hard-line conservatives opposed the 13-term Dreier as "squishy" on social issues, such as immigration and abortion.