HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER Dick Armey has become all the things people like about politicians but seldom get. He's candid, even downright revealing. He admits mistakes. He's forthright about the lessons he's learned in Washington after 18 years as a House member from Texas. He's clear about what he got done (welfare reform) and what he didn't (Social Security reform). And he's fun to listen to. Too bad he's retiring after 9 terms and clearing out of town.
Armey is part of a troika of influential conservative Republicans who are leaving Congress at the end of the year. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina has been the backbone of the conservative forces on Capitol Hill for three decades. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas has been the brains, debating for conservative issues so effectively that liberals fear taking him on. And Armey is the theorist, the policy wonk who hates politics but loves calculating the marginal impact of tax rate cuts on individual income.
Unlike many congressional leaders, Armey says he never seriously considered running for president. But if he had idle conversations about the possibility of running, he says, "I can only plead temporary insanity." Armey insists he benefited from giving himself "the gift of no political ambition." This was the "best gift" he ever got, he says, and helped him be effective as a House leader, including working with Democrats on occasion.
One thing that's never surprised Armey is what he calls the "political ineptness of Republicans." In 1995 and 1996, they made two "strategic errors" that harmed them politically and helped President Clinton and Democrats. One was talking Medicare reform prematurely, the other was suggesting closing down the government as a viable option during the budget impasse. The first hurt congressional Republicans in the 1996 election, the second allowed Clinton to win an easy reelection.
Now, Democrats are showing their own type of ineptness, Armey says. They failed to learn the lesson Republicans did in 1994, namely that campaigning only "against things" doesn't work. It was in 1994 that Republican challengers campaigned on a Contract With America and wound up capturing the House.
What was really amazing this year, Armey says, was Senate majority leader Tom Daschle's blocking of a homeland security bill. "I was astonished," he says. "It was the most inept thing I've seen done in 18 years" in Congress. "I don't think he calculated what it meant to the voters to see that [legislation] held up."
One result of Daschle's ineptness was the Republican victory in last week's midterm election. And it, in turn, has created a "once in a lifetime political opportunity" for Republicans. Armey believes it should be used to enact both tax reform and Social Security reform. Though the White House seems wary of pushing to overhaul Social Security in 2003, Armey thinks real reform "is within our reach" and should be on Bush's immediate agenda.
Many have questioned the decision of Democrats to make Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California their House minority leader, but Armey isn't one of them. "One of the reasons Nancy's abilities aren't recognized is she's a beautiful woman," he says. Her foe for minority leader, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, is "a marvelous young man" at age 32. "Wouldn't you like to be him?"
Armey's remarks came at a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington yesterday. He said his post-Congress plans are up in the air, but he'll "disconnect from politics" and probably affiliate with the free market Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia. One thing he won't do is lobby on Capitol Hill. "I just don't think majority leaders should lobby their former colleagues."
Armey was especially frank about his conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1995. Since "accepting Christ as my Savior . . . I have been a better person," one who doesn't feel insecure anymore. "When you're covered by the blood of the Lamb, you're never insecure," he says. But his faith hasn't changed his policy opinions--on Israel or anything else. "My devotion to Israel was there before Jesus was there," he says.
After 18 years, Armey has but one regret. He got annoyed from time to time over political, as distinguished from policy, matters. "I should have handled my attitudes about politics better," he says. And after 1995, he did.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.