With Democrats Leading Congress, What's Next for GOP? Voters handed control of Congress to the Democrats for the first time in over a decade, forcing Republicans to reassess their strategies going forward. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and author Andrew Sullivan discuss the future of the Republican party.

With Democrats Leading Congress, What's Next for GOP?

With Democrats Leading Congress, What's Next for GOP?

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Voters handed control of Congress to the Democrats for the first time in over a decade, forcing Republicans to reassess their strategies going forward. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and author Andrew Sullivan discuss the future of the Republican party.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last week, we spoke with Democrats about the midterm elections and what the results mean for the direction and the constituency of the party. Today, the other side of the aisle. The midterms gave everybody in the GOP plenty to think about. In polls, voters cited the quagmire in Iraq, government spending, ethical scandals, immigration, global warming, the economy. The question now is how various elements of the Republican Party evaluate lessons learned.

Does the party rededicate itself to principles of small government and low taxes? Does it identify more closely as the party of religious conservatives? Can the party appeal to blacks and Latinos? Is there room for gays and social liberals? A way to redefine the Republican Party.

Later on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page, we'll talk with Joshua Muravchik, who rejects the argument that the midterms sounded a death knell for neoconservatism. But first, Republicans. Who are you now and where do you go from here? What's still a core principle? What needs to be changed?

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And we begin with Dick Armey, chairman of FreedomWorks.org, a national, limited-government organization. He was House majority leader from 1995 to 2003, and joins us today from the studios of KNTU in Denton, Texas. Nice to have you on the program today.

DICK ARMEY: Well, it's nice to be with you.

CONAN: You helped design the revolution that swept Republicans to power in Congress back in 1994. Did an era come to an end on election night?

ARMEY: No, I don't think so. In fact, I would say that things have - we ran - one thing that, for example, got me involved in politics, the Reagan revolution - Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the Contract with America - I believe all of that got validated on election eve.

ARMEY: the only trick that the Republican Party has to pull off now is to convince the American people that we are, once again, in fact, a small-government, conservative party that the Democrats successfully pretended to be on election eve.

CONAN: And Republicans, you suggested, acted in the past few years like the entrenched Democrats, who you overthrew back in 1994.

ARMEY: They really did. And you know, the fact is the voting electorate that's drawn to the Republican Party are people that believe that the highest value in public policy is individual freedom and liberty, that it is served better by a government that is smaller and governs less, that lower taxes means less government - that's the biggest reason we cherish that - individual freedom is paramount, and that the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher era was the era in which the Republicans got it right.

They don't want a party that is short-sighted, self-serving, looking for what's in it for us now. They don't want a party that's bringing home the bacon. These are characteristics that people who are looking for in government generally are drawn to the Democrat Party for. But people in the Republican Party find this to be basically just missing the point of good government.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What about the tacticians of the party? Karl Rove, for example - the president, the man hailed as the architect after he was re-elected in 2004. Well, Karl Rover came in for an awful lot of criticism on November 7.

ARMEY: Yeah, I'm not so sure, I mean, how you break down that criticism. I think Karl Rove's tactical contribution was a systematic emphasis on getting out the vote. The Republicans did get out their vote better, frankly, than I thought they would.

CONAN: Getting out the base vote, appealing to conservatives.

ARMEY: Their base vote, yeah. What they missed was that you win the elections with the swing vote, and the swing vote was a large swing vote that swung for the Democrats that historically - in the last election cycles - went with us. And I think somehow they missed that.

I think Karl - whether he laid us at the feet or Karl Rove or leaders in the House and Senate and the White House, I think the broad base generally predisposed towards Republican voting constituency saw a lack of balance in the party. They saw a party that seemed to be short-sighted, self-centered, pre-occupied with their own re-election rather than what's good for the nation, and one that while it neglected many of the pocket-book issues, or seemed to be incapable of operating in these areas - simple things like tax extenders - seemed to be overly indulgent of the more what I would say harsh demands of the Evangelical part of the Reagan big-10 coalition.

There were - I think some of the things that they did in order to what seemed to be pander to the more militant leaders of the Evangelical Right, things that were inconsistent with their historical predispositions in favor of small government.

If, in fact, you were expanding the power of the state in order to impose a condition or a circumstance or a decision of righteousness, then I think you're working against the traditions of both pocketbook and what we call social conservatives and against the traditions of the Evangelicals themselves in this country.

So there was a little bit of having lost their way due to the prodding of some of the more, what should I say, enthusiastic members of the religious right.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Dion. Dion's calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

DION: Hey, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks.

DION: I'm a fiscal conservative. I've been a conservative at heart for as long as I can remember, but I'm gay. And I've never felt so alienated or delegated to a second-class citizen since this administration has been in power. So how are the Republicans planning to win the gays back?

CONAN: Dick Armey?

ARMEY: Well, you know, that is a problem, because the fact of the matter is small-government conservatism is a system of values that is available to a lot of demographic groups, Hispanics as well.

I think the fact is that you should understand - I mean, for example, if we insist that it is the prerogative of the federal government to define marriage in such a way as to preclude homosexual union, then why wouldn't we accept that another party, another majority might find it the prerogative of the federal government to define marriage in quite a different way?

Perhaps the correct answer is it is not the prerogative of the federal government to define marriage. It's not the prerogative of the federal government to impose a standard of righteousness on people. And maybe the better thing to have done would have been to stay away from issues like that that were alienating a lot of people who might otherwise share a lot of our values and, in fact, resulted in no change of the law at all. It seemed to be nothing but a political exercise designed to embarrass the Democrats at the expense of the homosexual community.

CONAN: Dion, thanks very much.

DION: Thanks.

CONAN: Joining us now is Ralph Reed, president of Century Strategies, a public relations and public affairs firm. He was also the first executive director of the Christian Coalition. He joins us now from his office in Atlanta, Georgia. Ralph Reed, nice to talk to you again.

RALPH REED: Thank you, Neal. Good to be with you.

CONAN: Over the past 12 years, the Republican Party has been infused with socially conservative values of many Christian voters. Were voters rejecting that aspect of the party in this year's election, do you think?

REED: Well, I think, you know, Neal, it's a little more complex than that - in my view, anyway. I think if you look at this in the long train of American history, while it was disappointing, it is not surprising that a two-term wartime president would experience this kind of setback.

Since 1860, there have been 12 midterm elections in a time of war. And in those midterm elections, the average number of House seats lost is 31. The average number of Senate seats lost is 5.

CONAN: So you're considering this the absolute norm for an election of this type, forgetting about some of the structural advantages that were built in by gerrymandering, not to use too pejorative a word.

REED: Right. Sure. Yeah, I think it's about average. That doesn't mean that we should slough it off. We lost. We clearly need to retool and rebuild. We need to get back to basics. But, you know, FDR lost 71 House seats in 1942 and still won World War II and ushered in the New Deal, so...

CONAN: And he still had a majority after losing those seats.

REED: The philosophy - it's the loss of an election.

CONAN: Is Dick Armey right, though, that perhaps the party pandered too much to what he calls extreme social conservatives?

REED: I don't think so. I think if you - if you look at, actually, the way that the other party conducted themselves, they apparently didn't think that those issues were a liability. They deliberately went out and recruited more socially conservative pro-life candidates like Bob Casey in Pennsylvania after losing that seat in the two last elections with pro-choice candidates. Yet people like Heath Shuler, who was pro-life, pro-gun, socially conservative, win a tough race in North Carolina.

I think what the Republicans have to recognize is that social - look, a political party is not a church. It's a political institution. And so you shouldn't let any one constituency dominate to the exclusion of others. But you want to hang a welcome side outside your party and let voters of faith and conservative values know that they're welcome, that you want them to participate and that you view them as an asset and not a liability.

CONAN: Dick Armey, I'm sure you would agree with that.

ARMEY: Well, that's exactly right. It's the big ten philosophy. But the fact of the matter is, if you look at election losses by Republicans during the last 20 years, George Herbert Walker Bush lost his reelection for president because the economic conservators were disillusioned with him. I believe the economic conservators were largely disillusioned with our people in parties now overspending excesses, earmarked excesses and so forth.

ARMEY: people from - of every political persuasions, every demographic classification - expect people that hold these privileged and highly responsible positions in revered institutions such as House and Senate of the United States to do serious work there. One of the things that they saw the Republicans doing very late in this election cycle and very dramatically was entertaining what was nothing other than political discourse with no serious legislative intent on the floor of these two bodies. That's an affront to most American voters.

CONAN: We're going to have more when we come back from a short break. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Our guests are Dick Armey, former majority leader of the House of Representatives - Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition. When we come back, blogger Andrew Sullivan will join us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As Republicans prepare to return to Washington in January as the minority party in Congress, the search is on for answers as to what happened exactly on Election Day and for a way forward. Last week, we looked at the future of the Democratic Party - today, Republicans.

TALK: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back. He blogs for Time.com, and he's with us here in the studio. Nice to see you again, Andrew.

ANDREW SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And so what went wrong on Election Day, and where's that soul of the conservatives that you want to recapture?

SULLIVAN: Well, I agree with Dick Armey, I have to say. I think the basic thing that most conservative voters - and independent of whether they're Republican or not - believe in is limited government and individual liberty. And they also believe in balanced budgets. And we didn't just have an increase in spending in the last five years. We had the biggest increase since FDR - 40 percent. Ronald Reagan vetoed a transportation bill in 1985 because it had 150 pork-barrel projects. The president signed one last year in a Republican Congress with over 6,000 of those earmarks.

In other words, the whole fiscal basis of limited government has been exploded. It used to be also the case that the Republican Party and the conservative movement was called a leave us alone coalition. We could all get along because we all agreed whether we were Evangelical, the Libertarians or small government conservatives, the government should leave us alone. And I was happy, for example, living in - within a movement in which people disagree with me on the issue of gay marriage.

But when they took it to say we're going to amend the federal constitution to ban all gay unions everywhere - when that physician in South Dakota was going to ban all abortion regardless of rape or incest, they went to far.

They didn't leave us alone, and they used government the way liberals and Democrats used to use government to boss people around and to impose their views of the world on our people. And I think you saw in the last election - especially in places like South Dakota or Arizona or the Rocky Mountain west and the Midwest - the old-style conservatives, not southern biblical bible belt conservatives, but old-fashioned, small government, keep the government out of my wallet and bedroom conservatives - they rebelled because they understand that this is not what they supported in the past. These people are not conservatives.

CONAN: Ralph Reed.

ARMEY: Let me - Can I jump on this?

CONAN: Okay, this is Dick Armey. Go ahead, I wanted to get Ralph Reed on that, too.

ARMEY: We can exemplify that position that was just expressed on foreign policy to intake on the neocons for just a moment. When it comes to domestic policy, I have argued when we - in our personal life, when we exemplify virtue and righteousness, we win. When we mandate it, we lose. I would say if you take a look at Eastern Europe today. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher won the Cold War, liberated millions of people - several eastern European nations - without firing a shot by exemplifying liberty and letting people now in that part of the world - or should I say respect, admire and want to emulate the United States and Great Britain.

By contrast, when we try to mandate liberty in the Middle East with the use of force, we alienate thousands of people - whole cultures, religious sects and nationalities of people - and they, frankly, reject freedom as a better alternative and reject the United States and England. So once again, if you live a life by which you manifest in your own conduct righteousness or liberty, you will find others around the world admiring you and wanting it for themselves.

CONAN: Ralph Reed, I'm sure that many social conservatives don't see marriage amendments or anti-abortion referenda as trying to boss people around.

REED: Well, I think not only do they not see it that way, but I don't think the American people see it that way. If you look at most of the public opinion polling, you know, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 75 percent - depending on what state you're looking at - are going to vote to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

You know, I've got the same position on marriage and how it should be defined that Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton both have...

ARMEY: That they will leave it to the states.

REED: ...is that marriage should be between a man and a woman. It should be defined as such in law.

ARMEY: So then open it up to the states.

REED: I think any time you can find Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich and me agreeing on an issue, that's called consensus.

Now, you know, reasonable people - and I would concede this to Andrew - I think reasonable people can disagree of goodwill about whether or not that should be done through state legislation, through a state constitutional amendment or at the federal level. I think that's a debatable issue.

ARMEY: Well, let me again just interject a thought here, because I think my good friend is missing the point. The point is do you use the power of the state to mandate a position of social policy? Now, when religious conservatives and economic conservatives under their big tent got along well, it was when they were defending themselves against the encroachments of big government. Now they're not getting along so well because one of the two players wants to expand the power of the state in order to impose standards of righteousness and one is inconsistent with liberty.

REED: Yeah, I think that's a good point, Dick, and let me respond to it. The fact of the matter is there was no effort among social conservatives to pass marriage amendments at the state level until after the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision - you know, basically imposing their view on the people of Massachusetts. And then that raised the issue of whether or not if a couple went to Massachusetts and got married, or San Francisco - remember when the mayor there was going ahead with marriage ceremonies of same-sex couples - whether or not a state would be required to recognize that.

And that's what really began it. It was not something that was done for any reason other than defending a really, millennia of the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman against an attempt by judges to redefine it.

SULLIVAN: But you already have the Defense of Marriage Act 1996 that would have prevented any of that, but you went for the Big Kahuna. You went for the federal marriage amendment. Just like with Terry Schiavo, I think many of us are very - have severe issues with like - personally, for example, I'm pro-life on a personal level. I also think that these decisions should be made by the families, not by federal government.

It shouldn't be - what matters is that these principles we can disagree with, but it's the use of the federal government with all its power to intervene in intimate relationships and intimate life and family life that we saw in the Terry Schiavo case, we see in the attacks upon gay people, we see in other areas that I think small government conservatives are very uncomfortable with and finally said, enough. We want our conservatism back from these people who have destroyed it and turned it into what it used to be against, which is the use of government to control freedom.

REED: If I could respond to that - I know there's been a lot of discussion about the Terry Schiavo case. I think there's a little bit of revisionist history about what happened there. So let me just frame how we viewed it. Andrew, I would agree with you that that is something that should be dealt with by the family. As you know, this was a case where the parents of the woman and the husband of the woman who was in a persistent vegetative state severely disagreed and were litigating and had been litigating for years. So it was already in the courts.

The feeding tube was removed on a Friday. Congress acted to do only one thing, and that was to allow her parents to appeal to the Federal courts. That's all they did. They guaranteed them no outcome. They did not keep her alive. They did not order that she be kept alive. They asked the federal courts to review the situation, which they did. They denied the parents their appeal, her feeding tube was removed, and she died. All they said was because there's a disagreement, there should be federal appellate court - of the matter.

SULLIVAN: If there is a disagreement within a family, the federal government should get involved. That's not a conservative principle.

REED: By the way, not a single Democrat in the U.S. Senate objected to that legislation.

SULLIVAN: Not a conservative principle.

REED: And half of the Democrats in the House voted for it.

SULLIVAN: Still not conservative.

CONAN: Let's get...

REED: It was a consensus view that a woman who was on the verge of dying, who was innocent...

CONAN: And this is a highly contentious and highly emotional issue that we're not going to agree on here, so let's...

REED: Right. I'm just making the point...

CONAN: I understand.

REED: ...extreme position that every Democrat in the Senate and half the Democrats in the House agreed with.

CONAN: All right. Let's get some more listeners involved in the conversation. This is Jackie, Jackie calling us from Denver, Colorado.



JACKIE: I'm calling because I've been working on Republican campaigns every election since the Contract with America, which got me very excited about the Republican Party back in 1994. But since then, in the last three to four years, I've been not so excited about the Republican Party because they've moved away from small government, personal responsibility and fiscal responsibility, and those are the reasons that I'm a Republican. It's interesting you brought up the Terry Schiavo case, because that was the first case in which I started looking at the Democratic Party. And this last month I worked very hard for the Democrats this year, out here in Denver.

And I have to say that hearing Dick Armey speak gets me very excited about the possibility of the Republican Party moving back towards leaving power at the state and local government level and away from the national government, and I think there are a lot of us out there that feel that way.

The only thing that's a deal breaker for me going over to the Democrats right now would be if they moved toward socialized medicine.

SULLIVAN: Me too. I'm desperately opposed to socialized medicine. I find that I'm being called a liberal all the time now. And I'm really not. I really believe in smaller government, lower taxes, private healthcare systems. And I also believe in a foreign policy that is competent.

I don't imagine people like Eisenhower, the great conservative leaders of the past, or Reagan, going to war with out enough troops, going to war without making basic contingency plans for things that might go wrong and then refusing to adjust.

There was ideological mindset, a fundamentalist mindset at the heart of this administration which refused to look empirically at the matter on the ground. And that to me is also a conservative value, looking empirically at the facts just as it is. No visionaries, no utopias, just dealing with reality and enlarging liberty. And those are the two pillars of conservatism for me that these people have destroyed.

JACKIE: They have. I feel that they've moved us farther away from personal liberty than the Democrats did...

SULLIVAN: I agree.

JACKIE: ...in years prior.

CONAN: Dick Armey, she's had some nice words about you. But I wonder if you would weigh in with Andrew Sullivan on Iraq there.

ARMEY: Well, you know, I had my views on Iraq at the time we went into Iraq and I expressed those to the president at the time. I've tried to not be an open critic of the president. But I go back to the point I made earlier. It seems to me a great deal of the neocon ideological underpinnings of this effort was we're going to go in there, we're going to liberate these folks and then all of the sudden they're going to jump up and rejoice and embrace freedom. We've ignored hundreds of thousands of years of internecine tensions and wars and struggles.

And the fact of the matter is I don't believe it was a very well conceived effort, but it was an effort that was ill conceived at the outset, which was we're going to compel liberty. Again, let me say, in Europe, in Eastern Europe, liberty followed the natural course of human desire as they saw evidence of the fruits of liberty in the world around them. They wanted it. And we are now seen by a very wide population of people across the globe as aggressors who have a vendetta against a certain, what should I say, ethnic or religious group of people in the world.

It's not a very good picture and it's not one that's going to cause people to say, let us be more like the Americans, let's make peace and try to find prosperity through individual freedom.

CONAN: Thanks, Jackie, for the call. Appreciate it.

JACKIE: May I say one more thing?

CONAN: If you keep it quick.

JACKIE: I will. I agree with that very much. I spent a semester in Morocco as a college student when the Berlin Wall came down, and students there would pull copies of U.S. Constitution out of their backpacks and ask me specific questions about our individual liberties. They knew more about our Constitution than Americans did, in my experience. And I'm afraid we've squandered that good will.

CONAN: Jackie, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

JACKIE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking today about the way ahead for Republicans. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Ralph Reed, we're going to be letting you go in a couple of minutes. But I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about where you see the future for social conservatives in the Republican Party. Is the party taking your votes for granted? Is this your natural home?

REED: Well, I think that it is the natural home, because I think that if you look at the formula for success for Republicans when they've done well since 1980, roughly over the last quarter century, it's been a limited government, lower taxes, economic growth, strong national defense, stronger families, safe neighborhoods, conservative values agenda.

And essentially there have been three key constituencies, a strong national defense, patriotic constituency, previously anti-communist, now in favor of a forward strategy of victory over terrorism; a limited government, lower taxes, economic growth constituency; and then the third is the social and pro-family conservatives. And that's been a winning formula. It was in the '80s with Reagan, gave us our first majority in Congress in four years under Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, and then of course we won three of the last four elections with that formula under Bush.

So I think that, you know, as we've discussed earlier, the key is to not allow any one constituency dominate to the exclusion of others but have an inclusive strategy that says, look, here's where we are on the issues. If you disagree on a few issues, you're still welcome as long as you believe in freedom, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.

ARMEY: I agree with Ralph, by the way, on that. The future is the - once again, the reaffirmation of a homogenized big tent, this constituency of liberty-lovers in different degrees and different issues. But to understand restraint of big government in the final analysis serves us all the best.

CONAN: But Andrew Sullivan, big tent implies people who are tolerant of each other's positions and don't demonize each other necessarily.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. And I'm afraid that many of us, I think for emotional reasons, have gotten into that situation. I think we need to try and scale that back, but also to understand that there is also a debate going on among evangelical Christians about their relationship with power, whether it be David Quo's(ph) or many other out - that many white evangelicals who didn't vote Republican this time.

And I think many of us believe also that our faith as Christians requires us, first of all, to live our own lives in the right way, and that's hard enough, before we start telling other people how to live their lives. So the power of Christianity is of example, not of bossing other people around.

And I think that there are many evangelicals within the conservative movement who actually are also tired of seeing their faith being used this way and seeing all the negatives associated with their faith, I mean some parts of the country where Christianity is becoming a dirty word. It means intolerance or hatred.

And that's a terrible shame. And I think evangelicals are beginning to say, hold on a minute. Now, our job is first of all to save souls, not to run governments. And we need to get the church a little further away from the state in order to have that take place.

CONAN: We're out of time with Ralph Reed. I wanted to thank him very much for joining us today. I know he would have some devastating counterpoints to what Andrew Sullivan had to say, but I'm afraid we're out of time for that. Ralph Reed, thanks very much for being with us.

REED: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Ralph Reed is president of Century Strategies, a public relations and public affairs firm, and was the first executive director of the Christian Coalition. He joined us today from his offices in Atlanta, Georgia. More with Andrew Sullivan and Dick Armey when we come back from a short break. We'll also be talking about the future of neo-conservatives on the Opinion Page this week.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: In a few minutes, can neo-cons get their groove back? That's on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. But let's continue our conversation about the way ahead for the Republican Party. Our guests are Dick Armey, former House majority leader, now chairman of FreedomWorks.org, and Andrew Sullivan, a blogger for Time.com and author The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It and How to Get it Back.

Here's an e-mail we got from Beth in Denver, Colorado. As a registered Republican who voted Democratic this year, I must advise Mr. Armey and other GOP leaders that the new conservative Democrats are nothing like the conservative Republicans. These new conservative Democrats are advocates of economic fairness, who are very concerned with those of us who work for a living, whereas the old conservative Republicans are almost exclusively concerned about those who supposedly generate all the wealth, A.K.A. supply-side economics.

Beth writes, it seems to me that supply-side economics took a real beating this time. It's been an operation long enough for us to see it's not in our best interest as Americans. Just chanting tax cuts, tax cuts is not enough to attract us anymore. Dick Armey?

ARMEY: Well, first of all, I'd say, you know, supply-side economics, Reaganomics, it was quite innovative in 1980, '82. Shouldn't have been. President Kennedy taught me that lesson as an undergraduate in 1962, the same lesson, cut taxes, do so smartly to encourage investment; the economy grows, revenue increases. We doubled the revenue.

I'm not quite sure what this e-mail sees as disenchanting about that because the old rising tide lifts all boats works...

CONAN: Well, I think a lot of people see a lot of economic disparities, the rich getting richer and the middle class and the poor not doing so well.

ARMEY: Yeah. Well, that's this constant drumbeat you hear from the left in America. And that, of course, obviously is a whole host of officeholders, mostly in the Democratic Party, but their friends in the press and so forth and so on.

The fact of the matter is consistently throughout the history of America, the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten richer. And we've all gotten more prosperous together. But there is nothing that raises the productivity, and hence the incomes of a laboring man or woman in this country more quickly and certainly than the innovation of science and engineering that's embodied in the capital that comes from the investment of those who saved and made the capital expansion in the first place.

This is as old as The Wealth of Nations, first lesson...

SULLIVAN: I agree with Dick Armey on almost all that, except I would say the one key element of 1994 was the Balanced Budget Amendment and the commitment of the Republicans to balancing budgets. That used to be a critical part of the reform movement. And they have not balanced budgets and they have increased the unfunded liabilities for the next generation from 20 trillion to 43 trillion in four years. That's not good conservative economics.

ARMEY: Well, let me go back. Because, you know, when you make errant decisions it's oftentimes because you have an errant choice criteria. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the Contract with America, Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey for about the first five years for this majority, all of our decisions were governed by policy considerations about the future and respect of the past and the heritage of this country.

Where the Republicans started going wrong in office is when they started letting their decisions be governed by an anxious devotion to political criteria. Politics is a morally and intellectually inferior occupation to economics or public policy of any stripe. And when you're making political decisions, they're about yourself, they're going to lead you to a bad place, and they did.

All of the earmarks, all of the lack of devotion to fiscal responsibility was born out of a desire to win the next election by spending taxpayers' dollars in an earmarked way to attract attention back home...

SULLIVAN: Margaret Thatcher used to define a socialist as someone who's very good at spending other people's money.

ARMEY: Absolutely.

SULLIVAN: And on those grounds the current Republicans have been socialists. I mean they really have.

CONAN: Let's get another listener in on this. This is Joan. Joan calling us from Sacramento.

JOAN: Hello. I'm enjoying your show right now. And I wanted to say that I, unfortunately, I think that the discussion is missing the boat, the boat, the message that was sent to both parties by the voters, and I think what they were saying is that people did not win because they were closer to the left or not too close to the right or whatever. They were voted out because they were not listening to the people, and I believe that our nation has gotten to a point where they have lost so much - so much of our resources have gone to the war, there are so many unmet needs, that you're simply go to - no matter what party it is, you're going to have to listen to what the population is saying or people have now learned that we can just vote out incumbents who want to go for their own things. I think it's a whole new day, politically.

SULLIVAN: I think Katrina was a really important moment in that because, look, if government can't actually respond to a natural disaster, what on earth is it there for? And when we have a government that's planning to go to Mars that cannot protect us from a hurricane, the government's priorities are completely out of whack.

JOAN: Exactly.

SULLIVAN: It needs to get back to basic competence and delivery of services.

JOAN: Exactly. That's what we need to restore.

SULLIVAN: And I think most people don't think ideologically left and right. They think why is this government unable to win a war or protect us from a hurricane?

JOAN: Exactly, exactly.

SULLIVAN: And they noticed the Republicans in power in denial about their own incompetence, so they gave them a wake-up call. And I think - I don't think - I still think they're not out of denial. I think they don't understand how deep the disenchantment has gone with them and how long a road they have to get back to sanity.

ARMEY: Well, let me - Joan, the way to get back to that and get the public to appreciate you once more is to show a genuine understanding and devotion to some of the big-ticket issues that face the American people. And I would argue that most Americans are deathly concerned about their own personal retirement security. And a Republican Party that says we put saving a clearly failed government program ahead of being creative, innovative and devoted to your personal retirement security is a Republican Party that, once again, is going to miss the mark.

CONAN: Joan, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

JOAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'd like to thank our guest, Dick Armey , who you just heard, now chairman of FreedomWorks.org, a national limited-government organization, with us today from the studios of KNTU on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Dick Armey, thanks very much for being with us today.

ARMEY: Well, thank you for having me. And just - let me just say one - to all those Colorado folks, go Stars. This is a big night in our lives, and the Stars are going to be playing the Abs(ph) tonight.

CONAN: Okay. And also here with us in Studio 3A, Andrew Sullivan. Appreciate your time, as always.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. And Dick Armey, keep the faith.


CONAN: Andrew Sullivan, author of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back, and a blogger for Time.com. When we come back, The Opinion Page.

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