Former House Majority Leader Offers GOP Advice

Republicans lost not only the White House but also seats in the House and Senate. The results bring into focus the debate that started before the election: What is the future of the GOP? Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey tells Renee Montagne that his fellow Republicans need to start acting like Republicans, or they will continue to lose elections.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Republicans lost not only the White House last night, they lost seats in the House and Senate. The results bring into focus a debate that started before the election about the future of the Republican Party. We're going to get a view now from a Republican who's helped shape the party in the past. Dick Armey was the House majority leader from 1995 to 2002, and he joined us on the line from Dallas. Good morning.

Mr. DICK ARMEY (Former Republican House Majority Leader): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Mr. Armey, the voters have spoken, and it seems they aren't at all happy with the Republican Party. What, in your view, happened?

Mr. ARMEY: Well, it's a predictable outcome. And obviously we've been trying - many of us have been trying to advise the Republicans in office for the past several years, when we're like us, we win, and when we're like them, we lose. And the fact of the matter is the American voting public expects the Republican Party to be distinctly different from the Democratic Party in that we ought to be for individual liberty versus collective security and small government versus big government. We should be the party that is trying to cut spending and control taxes and regulation. And we haven't been that party in office.

MONTAGNE: But are you then saying that Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, didn't run as true Republicans?

Mr. ARMEY: No, I think John McCain, strangely enough, given some of the animosity he's had to face within his own party, has probably been more true to the Republican code of individual liberty and small government than anybody. It was John McCain who first raised his voice against the ugly record of earmarks that was being set in Congress and, frankly, invoked the wrath of many of the people in Congress at the time.

But you know, he had the albatross around his neck of being in the party. There are a lot of good people. People like John Sununu up in New Hampshire. I mean, Lord have mercy for this country to lose the services of such a dedicated person. Phil English in Pennsylvania. A lot of good, able people, deserving people with merit.

MONTAGNE: Right, who lost last night their runs for re-election. But let me ask you. You were quoted as saying that a period in opposition might be good therapy for the Republican Party. How do you mean?

Mr. ARMEY: Well, give them a chance to find their moorings again. It was very difficult - take for example John Boehner. John Boehner is a true-believing small-government conservative. He's got a distinguished record. But as minority leader serving with President Bush - who set the record for expansion of Medicare Part D and things like No Child Left Behind, and so forth, and then this massive big bailout - pretty well puts a person like John Boehner in a bind. Now he can demonstrate in fact who he really is without any sense of intraparty conflict.

MONTAGNE: Now, again John Boehner, minority leader in the House. When you look at their electoral map this morning and new patches of blue are in places that until this election were all red, do you think we're seeing a fundamental shift in the political landscape?

Mr. ARMEY: No, no, I think you're seeing the natural consequences of delinquency in office. You look at the great shining moments of the Republican Party in my adult lifetime - Goldwater in '64, Reagan in '80, and we in the Contract of '94 - our behavior, as understood by the public, was markedly different than what they've seen in the last six or so years in Congress. And the public reacted to that. So I don't think the Democrats ought to be crowing too much that they won so much. Our guys got punished for not being responsible conservatives.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us this morning.

Mr. ARMEY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Republican Dick Armey was House majority leader from 1995 to 2002. He spoke to us from Dallas.

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