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Dick Armey on the Direction of the GOP

By Ryan Sager

This week Ryan Sager's new book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, hits bookstore shelves. Below is an interview Sager conducted with former Rep. Dick Armey one of the chief architects of the Republican Revolution in the 1990's. Armey assumed the position of majority leader after the Republicans took Congress in 1994 and remained in that post until he retired from the House in January of 2003. Mr. Armey, now chairman of FreedomWorks, sat down in his Washington, D.C., office in November of 2005 with Sager to discuss the present and future of the Republican Party.

(Responses are verbatim, though condensed for the sake of brevity.)

Sager: Where is the GOP in terms of its commitment to small government?

Armey: Adrift and rudderless. They've really slipped their moorings. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a general attitude that permeated the entire government: Money is no object. And that just became infectious across the board. They're completely out of touch with the vision we had in '94 and '95. It just went to hell.

What accounted for the discipline the federal government was able to maintain in the 1990s? Was it just that we had divided government? Why have things fallen apart since then?

When I used to stand up and say "hell no" to Bill Clinton, I was always applauded by all the people I love. When I stood up and said "hell no" to George Bush, I was berated by all the people I love. I'm not sure, it's not clear to me, that Denny [Speaker Dennis Hastert] and [former House majority leader] Tom [DeLay] ever really embraced the vision in the first place, either one of them. Denny's pretty much a parochial politician who believes it's not only your right but probably your duty to bring home the bacon. And Tom is an appropriator.

Was 1994 an anti-government rebellion by voters, or an anti-Washington rebellion?

It was an anti-Democrat rebellion. Our basic thesis was that we could find 10 things that had high standing with the American people that were demonstrably kept off the floor for even a vote by the Democrats. The whole point of the Contract was if you give us the majority we will vote on these things in the first 100 days. People say the Democrats should do a Contract. The problem is they can't find 10 things that the American people embrace that we keep off the floor. They can find 10 things that their party embraces that we keep off the floor. But they don't have the majority party in America.

What went wrong with the government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996? How did the Republicans miscalculate?

Newt's position was, presidents get blamed for shutdowns, and he cited Ronald Reagan. My position was, Republicans get blamed for shutdowns. I argued that it is counterintuitive to the average American to think that the Democrat wants to shut down the government. They're the advocates of the government. It is perfectly logical to them that Republicans would shut it down, because we're seen as antithetical to government. I said if there's a shutdown, we're going to get the blame. Here's the other thing: You're heard saying rather boldly in June that you're going to shut the government in the fall. You've set the stage for the press to report that the Republicans are now doing in October what they said they'd do in June. Even if, in fact, they thought it was the right strategy to shut down the government, they should have kept their mouths shut about it. The fact of the matter is what happened was, they honestly believed that Clinton would not shut down the government. It was a fiasco that was harmful and dangerous to us because we made it that way.

How could the Republicans have done things differently in 1995?

Just keep our mouth shut, go through the year, stick to our guns, stand quietly on the ground that we had, live by continuing resolutions until we break them. What we did was we precipitated a political confrontation, and we got our butts kicked. If we had just quietly done the nation's business, and let it drag into the next year -- it did anyway -- I think Clinton would have come along. What you had to do with Bill Clinton was don't give him any schmooze. The quiet "no," this is what he couldn't deal with. If you take me out in the back street with Muhammad Ali and give me a gun, I'll shoot him, right, and nobody will notice, but if you let me get in the ring with him, he's gonna kick the tar outta me. Clinton, if you give him the political arena, he's a Muhammad Ali. Newt thought he was big enough and smart enough and strong enough to handle Clinton, so that's what it was really about. Newt was really swelled up with -- the speaker's a very important job, I'm a really important man, I'm as important as the president. He had a compelling need to prove that the speaker was as big as, or bigger than, the president. A lot of it was naïveté on our part. We'd never been there before. Quite frankly, I look back at it, we did a remarkable job for people who'd never been in control of anything. But the idea that we could meet Clinton on his ground and beat him, I just think was naïve on our part.

What's wrong with today's Republican Congress?

The criteria of choice in just about every behavior you see in Congress today is politics. Where in the hell did this Terri Schiavo thing come from? There's not a conservative, Constitution-loving, separation-of-powers guy alive in the world that could have wanted that bill on the floor. That was pure, blatant pandering to [Focus on the Family President] James Dobson. That's all that was. It was silly, stupid, and irresponsible. Nobody serious about the Constitution would do that. But the question was will this energize our Christian conservative base for the next election.

Will anyone run as the heir to George W. Bush in 2008?

I wouldn't. The next guy has got to stand up and say I'm my own man.

What do you think of Hillary Clinton's chances if she runs for president?

The biggest thing Hillary's got to worry about is her health care plan. Clinton was president for eight years, was there anything that scared you? Yeah, the health care plan. But she will sound more like us than we do when she gets on that campaign trail. Frankly, she's standing on pretty dang good ground. Hillary winks at the left, they get it.

Ryan Sager (rhsager.com) is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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