STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A former Republican leader says his party might lose Congress this fall, and if they do, it might come because they tried too hard to keep power.
One-time majority leader Dick Armey was a familiar figure after Republicans captured Congress in 1994. He's a Texas economist and a powerful deputy to the speaker of those years, Newt Gingrich.
We called him up to start a series of conversations this week, about the political parties: what they stand for and how they win. Armey picked up the phone at a Texas diner that has become a kind of informal office for him these days.
Mr. DICK ARMEY (Former House Majority Leader; Republican, Texas): We like to come to Andrew's for breakfast, and yes it is an opportunity to sit down with people in the neighborhood and visit, find out what's going on. And on occasion even tape a show for NPR.
INSKEEP: Well that's great! Well, I noticed that you've been writing some lately, and I saw an article that you wrote in the Wall Street Journal in which you said that Republicans in Congress, this year, have come down to making what you described as hollow political gestures. That's all they seem to have left on their legislative agenda.
Do you think the Republican revolution, as it was once called, is over?
Mr. ARMEY: Well, certainly, I think we've gotten away from where we were in '95, '96, and '97, when all our behavior was governed by national ideas - ideas that were respectful of our history. They've turned in a direction that's, I think, very parochial and very political. And I think it reflects a certain amount of insecurity on the part of the Republicans, with respect to whether or not they can hold their majority.
INSKEEP: Are you saying that they're just focused on holding power?
Mr. ARMEY: Well there's an old saying by the psychologists, that, you know, whatever it is you fear will happen is what you will sometimes make happen. Yes, I think they've had an obsessive concern about losing their majority, and in the process they have compromised their agenda.
They've moved on to trying to be like the Democrats, for strange reasons I'll never understand. When the Democrats want to win elections they pretend to be us. When we get insecure we pretend to be them. And all the while, we lose sight of the fact that when we're like us, we win.
INSKEEP: What is an agenda item that's being compromised?
Mr. ARMEY: Well, certainly they've not picked up the big ideas like social security reform. This is the most important public policy issue of our generation. Our Republican majority with a Republican in the White House should have taken this - as we say in Texas - this bull by the horns and fixed this thing. They've not done very much on tax reform. And of course, they've let spending get way out of control. And they frankly haven't had a big idea that they've focused on, I'd say, at least since 2002.
INSKEEP: How do you suppose it is that Republicans got in a position where you feel that they're not trying hard enough and pushing their ideals hard enough, whereas, according to polls, plenty of other people seem to think that Republicans have been uncompromising and pushing too hard on their ideological agenda items without thinking about other issues for the country?
Mr. ARMEY: Well, I think you hit the right word. They've been very ideological with such things as gay marriage, the Schiavo blowup…
INSKEEP: This is Terry Schiavo, the woman who was on the respirator for the longest time.
Mr. ARMEY: Right.
INSKEEP: And there was a congressional intervention. Yeah.
Mr. ARMEY: So, while they've more or less, even pandered to Christian evangelical conservatives, they've neglected the pocketbook conservatives. And when they wanted to move something like gay marriage or the flag burning, or -these are symbolic things, everybody knows them to be - they were uncompromising.
INSKEEP: You were the majority leader during the presidency of Bill Clinton, and you harshly criticized him for lying, for what you saw as moral lapses. Would you direct criticism like that against your fellow Republicans today?
Mr. ARMEY: No - well, yes to some. I mean, obviously, we were all shocked, I mean I was just, I couldn't believe what Duke Cunningham did. I've been critical of Tom DeLay and the way he has done business for many years, even years before I left Congress.
Bobby Ney was, again, at least foolish, probably just irres - well certainly irresponsible. And then of course this Foley thing is a stunning shocker to me. And it does not make us happy to watch people behave that way, but it particularly upsets you when they're people in your own party. You know, we expect - I expect - better from people in the Republican Party.
INSKEEP: You've just named a number of lawmakers who've gotten into one kind of trouble after another, here. Do you think it goes deeper than those men?
Mr. ARMEY: Well, I, you know - when you see one thing after another, you begin to worry what other shoe might drop. Sooner or later, you know, you've got to figure the bad news will quit coming, but it's been pretty stunning for us along the way.
INSKEEP: Do you think corruption is inevitable when you get power?
Mr. ARMEY: No, I don't. I think if you look at being in public office as a question of power, it's probably going to get you in trouble. If, in fact, you look at it as a great opportunity to serve, to do something good for the nation, to have values and objectives outside yourself - you'll probably never get in any trouble.
So, you know, the trick is - don't think in terms of power. It's not about you. It's not about your power. This is no thinking thing. Any 14-year-old kid can be taught this lesson, I think, in a fundamental civics course in junior high.
INSKEEP: I wonder if there's something about the atmosphere of the moment that encourages corruption to stay in power. Because if you're in office right now, there seems to be an excellent chance that you may believe that you're program is the only way to save the country and that therefore anything you have to do to stay in power is justified.
Mr. ARMEY: Well, there is that kind of a thing. I remember sitting at the leadership table not long before I left Congress, and I wrote this note to myself. I said, every week we come into Washington, we do things we ought not to be doing in order to stay in the majority so we can do the things that we know are good for the country. But, we never get around to the latter. And the fact of the matter is, if in fact, you are zealous - as Barry Goldwater says -in the pursuit of liberty. If you're zealous in the pursuit of good policies that are important to the nation, that's probably going to get you to the right place.
If you're zealous in the pursuit of saving your seat in Congress or saving your majority, you're making political decisions and are probably going to get to a bad place in a hurry.
And I think the current dilemma, the Republicans - demonstrates the logical consequence of being obsessed with political objectives. They've forgotten Armey's axiom, that good policy makes good politics.
INSKEEP: Well former Congressman Dick Armey, it's great to talk with you.
Mr. ARMEY: Well thanks for having me. And let me say, if you ever get down to Bartonville, Texas, drop into Andrew's, they'll fix you a pretty good breakfast.
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INSKEEP: Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey began our discussions, this week, on the political parties during this election season. And by the way, former Congressman Armey has some tough campaign advice for his fellow Republicans this fall, which you can hear at NPR.org.
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