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In the early 1970s, President Richard M. Nixon and members of his administration assembled what came to be known as an “enemies list” or “Political Enemies Project.” The list was designed to identify Mr. Nixon’s political adversaries and to destroy them through dishonest tax audits and various modes of defamation.

In an August 1971 memorandum written by John Dean to Lawrence Higby, the White House counsel wrote that the administration was intent on using “the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”

It was a vicious (and needless) form of political scheming. That bitter motivation led to President Nixon’s eventual downfall.

I believe we are witnessing a similar form of seek-and-destroy politics today that is just as brutal and just as destructive. (And it has the potential to backfire on the purveyors of this type of payback politics.)

The man at the wrong end of this dire political game is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who stepped down from his leadership post this week after he and two political associates were charged by a Texas grand jury of conspiracy regarding alleged campaign-finance irregularities.

Rep. DeLay insists that the charges are unfounded and that he will be proven innocent.

A key issue here is the political inclination of Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle, who said two weeks ago that Mr. DeLay was not the target of his probe into the 2002 state election campaigns. Then, suddenly, he changed his course of action. This is the same Ronnie Earle (a “partisan fanatic,” according to Mr. DeLay) who went after Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (also a Republican) in 1994, but later elected not to go to trial. A judge ordered an acquittal for the senator on charges of official misconduct and record tampering.

DeLay says Earle is now going after him largely because the Austin American-Statesman newspaper put intense pressure on Earle to indict the congressman. In addition, you can rest assured that the Democrat leadership has been bulldozing Earle to go after DeLay – a man who is detested by the opposition party.

Dick Morris, who has no doubt seen up close virtually every political dirty trick in the business, said on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes” broadcast this week that Earle has a political axe to grind. He also notes that what DeLay is accused of doing “happens all the time” in Washington.

And he is surely right. The campaign-finance system is apparently full of loopholes and escapes that all politicians utilize. It was constructed out of political convenience and hasn’t seemed to matter to anyone. But all of a sudden a top-ranking Republican is singularly breaking the rules.

It’s not surprising that DeLay is the man in the crosshairs. He is one of our nation’s most visible conservative leaders and a man who is frequently pilloried by his political opponents. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he would be targeted in this manner. (I guess we also shouldn’t be surprised that Democrats have hurriedly launched fund-raising campaigns around this DeLay “scandal.”)

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said on Wednesday that while he cannot speak to the charges against DeLay, he can speak for the man he knows.

He said, “Majority Leader DeLay has been an outspoken champion of the pro-family issues important to us all. He has championed issues ranging from the partial-birth abortion to tax cuts to the first historic vote on the marriage amendment.”

The point here is not that DeLay is automatically innocent because he’s pro-life or Republican. But it is pretty obvious, as Dr. James Dobson noted this week, that he is the target of an ugly political witch hunt.

While the dogs continue to yap at his heels, I hope that Rep. DeLay can get past the nasty politics that have seemingly brought him to this point. And I pray that he can quickly prove his innocence and get back to work as one of our eminent political leaders.

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