Some Advice For His Own
Former House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey has never been one to shy from a fight. He shattered Washington propriety by telling President Clinton that his budget and tax plan would make him a "one-term president" and quizzed NAACP President Kweisi Mfume about "racial McCarthyism." Lately, though, his famous candor has been directed at his own party. Retired since 2003, the devoted fiscal conservative and former economics professor is now making waves by saying the GOP squandered voters' trust by focusing more on "wedge issues" like gay marriage than on fulfilling its promise to champion small government. With the Republican revolution engineered by Armey and Newt Gingrich now a shambles, Armey tells U.S. News that Republicans must renew their fight for moderate voters. Excerpts:
You've been railing against your brethren of late. What's changed?
First of all, I've been critical of my party for almost two years. My own view is they became more interested in saving the majority than they were in making good policy. They became insecure. They showed a lack of commitment to the priorities of the American people. They need to get back to being small-government conservatives so they can win the confidence of the people like Ronald Reagan did. Reagan was right. People will understand and reward good policy when we move forward on substantive issues.
But many believe the GOP owes its success to "wedge" issues. And based on the success of gay-marriage bans, conservatives are responding.
These are important issues. They are also issues people want to see dealt with on a serious basis. If you put an issue on a referendum, and I get to vote, there's no fooling around. But what they did in Congress last session was raise a constitutional amendment [to ban gay marriage] on the floor as a political exercise. A fundamental tenet of conservatism is an aversion to publicly funded elections. When pocketbook conservatives see people using Congress to score points for the next election, they know they're watching a publicly funded campaign. They don't see it as serious work by serious people.
Do the midterms show that Republicans have lost the political middle ground?
For now. The good news is they can very quickly get the middle of the spectrum back. Most of the big issues that face the American people require a substantial change in policy that the Democratic Party is incapable of making. Retirement security is probably first. It is the single biggest public-policy problem and opportunity of our lifetime. It's an issue plagued by Democrats who don't care and Republicans who don't dare.
But President Bush dared and got slammed.
If you come in halfhearted, you're going to get your head handed to you. We had that experience with welfare reform in 1995 and 1996. Half of the people in our party said let's not mess with that. The Democrats will take us apart. What happened was we completed the job and when Bill Clinton left the presidency, he said it was the best idea he had.
Have evangelicals hijacked the GOP?
Part of the reason they lost the majority was they were overly responsive to people like [Focus on the Family founder] James Dobson.
You've accused him of being obsessed with power.
A lot of people in Washington become obsessively interested in their power, and Dobson is one of them. In this instance, he's a person so determined to be heard and obeyed that when talking to a fairly insecure group of legislators, he could compel them to engage in behavior that was destructive to themselves. A prime example is Terri Schiavo. You basically had the federal government mandating judicial activism on a state in total disrespect for the concept of separation of powers. Somebody had convinced our guys in office that it is acceptable to expand the power of the state in order to impose righteous conduct. We are now prepared to act as if government righteousness is more important than freedom. That is simply not acceptable behavior for conservatives. But it scored points with evangelicals.
How do fiscal conservatives join evangelicals to win in 2008?
Evangelicals have always said you can't win without us. But history has shown more Republicans have lost elections for the absence of pocketbook conservatives. Evangelicals should continue to advocate the things they believe in. But maybe they should [remember], "Thou shall render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto the Lord what is the Lord's." If we exemplify a righteous life, we have done the appropriate thing. If we try to legislate a righteous life, we have done the wrong thing.
Is the public hungry for bipartisanship?
I think they're hungry for more civility. There seems to be a real commitment now among people in Congress. The people that won this majority are smart politicians. Some Democrats will be mean spirited, but leadership knows if they don't show they can run a civil body, they're going to be on the outside again.
This story appears in the November 20, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.