Dick Armey: Where The GOP Went Wrong genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Dick Armey

Every now and then, we get a glimpse of a politician that is willing to give a reasonably candid assessment of their own political party. Unfortunately, it is typically a former politician that provides that assessment. Rarely does a politician in office provide voters with such an honest evaluation...which simply reinforces voter perceptions that politics is all about power and less about doing the right thing.

Sadly, statesmanship seems to surface only after the need to win and the goal of advancing rigid party rhetoric is no longer the driving force. Dick Armey provides an honest evaluation of where the Republican Party has lost its way in a new article in the Washington Post.

Somewhere along the road to a "permanent majority," the Republican Revolution of 1994 went off track. For several years, we had confidence in our convictions and trusted that the American people would reward our efforts. And they did.

Where did the revolution go astray? How did we go from the big ideas and vision of 1994 to the cheap political point-scoring on meaningless wedge issues of today -- from passing welfare reform and limited government to banning horsemeat and same-sex marriage?

The answer is simple: Republican lawmakers forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position, and began putting politics over policy. Now, the Democrats are reaping the rewards of our neglect -- and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

It seems to me that politics has become a least common denominator equation. Political parties look for voter prejudices in order to gain their loyalty through divisive wedge issues. Negative campaign ads are virtual tabloid trash intended to garner Americans ghoulish attraction to gossip and innuendo regardless of fact. Despite the protestations often heard, voters respond to these ads so there is no incentive to campaign otherwise. We would rather hear about a candidate’s messy divorce or their failure to pay their property taxes on time than to know what kind of a manager each candidate might be once in office...what abilities and insights they can offer as an effective advocate in Washington.

Each November voters become voyeurs and both parties roll out the garbage we seem to seek. Perhaps we're addicted to the misfortune of others because it makes us feel better by comparison...but if that's the case, we're destined to see more of the same each election cycle.

Gingrich and I and a handful of true believers in Ronald Reagan's conservative vision set the goal of retaking the House. The "Contract With America" outlined our platform of limited government. This vision appealed to both the social and economic wings of the conservative movement; equally important, it included institutional reforms for a Congress that had grown increasingly arrogant and corrupt. The contract nationalized the vision of the Republican Party in a way that unified our base and appealed to independents. We championed national issues, not local pork projects or the creature comforts of high office.

Welfare reform in 1996 only affirmed the revolution. Bureaucrats, special interests and the White House all claimed that the sky would fall if we touched this failed Great Society program, but we held firm. When you take on a sacred cow, you must kill it completely -- tinkering on the margins is ineffective. In the end, the reform proved so successful and popular that President Bill Clinton (who rejected the original bill twice) considers it one of the best ideas his administration ever had.

At one point during the welfare reform debates, a member approached me and said, "Dick, I know this is the right thing to do, but my constituents just won't understand." I told him, "So you're telling me they are smart enough to vote for you but not smart enough to understand this?" He ended up voting to pass the bill.

Bipartisanship isn't glamorous and it doesn't incite the vitriol of the party base. Karl Rove and the GOP realized as much and they have made brazen partisanship the centerpiece of their divisive approach to politics...having bet that it would be easier to maintain a majority constituency be defining the enemy rather than outlining an agenda to advance broader goals that might benefit the entire electorate...and the last two election cycles suggested it works quite well.

Since the party [GOP] won the majority in 1994, the GOP Conference had been consistent in requiring offsetting spending cuts for any new spending initiatives. (In fact, during the aftermath of a large Mississippi River flood, Rep. Jim Nussle even waited to find and approve offsets before moving the relief legislation for his own state of Iowa.) But by the summer of 1997, the appropriators -- rightly called the "third party" of Congress -- had begun to pass spending bills with Democrats. As soon as politics superseded policy and principle, the avalanche of earmarks that is crushing the party began.

Now spending is out of control. Rather than rolling back government, we have a new $1.2 trillion Medicare prescription drug benefit, and non-defense discretionary spending is growing twice as fast as it had in the Clinton administration. Meanwhile, Social Security is collapsing while rogue nations are going nuclear and the Middle East is more combustible than ever. Yet Republican lawmakers have taken up such issues as flag burning, Terri Schiavo and same-sex marriage.

They're fooling only themselves.

Pelosi says she would preside over a moderate Democratic majority, and has committed to raising taxes only as a last resort. But Democratic policy goals such as nationalized health care and low-interest student loans are expensive, and dozens of new spending "priorities" will crop up as soon as the election results are tallied. Democrats have promised that all new spending will be offset by tax increases, so will they raise taxes in the run-up to the 2008 race?

In essence, Pelosi will be forced to choose between a vocal base -- expecting immediate satisfaction on issues such as withdrawing from Iraq, legalizing same-sex marriage and the impeachment of President Bush -- or policies that are tolerable to a majority of Americans. That's quite a dilemma: appeasing a base that has been hungry for political revenge since 2000 and 2004, or alienating moderate and swing voters.

The problem is that the partisanship becomes the drug of choice in a back and forth battle of punitive periods of power whereby one side is given the opportunity to impose a measure of revenge on the enemy in order to pay back the base that gave them that power. In doing as much, those voters who prefer bipartisanship are further alienated from the process and many simply choose to ignore politics altogether...thereby perpetuating and reinforcing more of the same.

The likely Republican losses in next week's elections will not constitute a repudiation of the conservative legacy that drove the Reagan presidency and created the Contract With America. To the contrary, it would represent a rejection of big government conservatism. When we get back to being the party of limited government, putting a national agenda ahead of parochial short-term politics, we will again be a party that the American voters will trust to deal with the serious challenges facing our nation.

The 2006 midterm elections will be a success for the Democrats. Republicans will have to manage their own disappointment. Fingers will be pointed, and various villains will be fashioned out of recent events. But the plain fact is that Republicans have been setting the stage for this outcome for nearly a decade, running from themselves and their own principles. We will not find ourselves by conforming to the status quo, but by returning to our Reagan roots.

I'm not sure I completely agree with Armey's conclusion. I wasn't a Reagan fan but I give him credit for speaking to all Americans far more than our current president. One could disagree with Reagan's policies but one didn't necessarily feel that he governed by defining and using those divisions for political advantage. Frankly, there were Reagan Democrats because his rhetoric allowed as much...something that isn't part of today's political equation.

Armey seems to hinge his conclusion on Reagan's conservative credentials and while I respect that observation, I'm not sure that alone brought Reagan his success. He chose to govern as a conservative but that conservatism wasn't filled with divisive social issues intended to polarize. Fundamental conservative philosophy no longer serves the goals of the GOP because they chose to embrace issues that endeared them to voters regardless of their underlying ideology.

Until those who seek office reaffirm their commitment to public service and relegate partisan politics to its proper place, we will continue to swing from one extreme to the other in an ever escalating battle for the power to impose and punish.

Daniel DiRito | October 29, 2006 | 7:45 AM
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1 On October 30, 2006 at 8:08 PM, Dr. John wrote —

Dick Armey what a gas bag. His parting gift to the people of his Texas Congresional District was trying to get the voters to send his son to Washington to fill his former seat.

Just say no to hereditary dynastic political power. Who cares what this douche has to say?

To think I gave this moron a thousand dollars! Who do I see to get my money back???

Dr John

Thought Theater at Blogged

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