Dick Armey

On where the GOP went wrong.

Evan Smith: Did the Democrats win on Election Day, or did the Republicans lose?

Dick Armey: The Republicans lost. They had been losing this election for a long time, and it’s because they have gotten so far away from the standards of behavior and conduct that endeared them to the American people in the first place. When the Republicans were shining in the eyes of the voters, they were dealing with big issues. They were taking political chances in order to do the right thing, and their whole thought process was directed at “What can we do that’s good for America?” They weren’t thinking about themselves.

ES: You’ve said before that they got a little too conservative on some issues.

DA: What I said is, they lost sight of the fact that as small-government conservatives their mission should be to stop the government from growing and interfering and becoming excessively involved in people’s lives. In recent years they’ve taken legislation to the floor that was designed to expand the government for the purpose of imposing standards of morality and conduct on the American people. The two most notable areas where they’ve done that—to their recent electoral harm—were on immigration and some items of fancy among evangelical leaders.

ES: Let’s take those areas separately. In the latter case, you cite the Terri Schiavo matter.

DA: It’s the clearest example of where they lost sight of the fact that freedom is the first objective of governance. The fundamental tenet of small-government conservatism—what you might call Ronald Reagan conservativism—is federal respect for the prerogatives of state government, which Reagan called federalism. One of the first things we established when we took over the majority [in 1994] was an end to federal mandates on state governments. [The Schiavo case showed] no respect for the difference between federal and state prerogatives. And judicial activism! Historically, small-government conservatives are averse to judicial activism, and yet in that case they said, in so many words, “Judicial activism is acceptable if the judiciary is ordered by a legislative branch.”

ES: Had you been in office, would you have opposed what a vast majority of your fellow Republicans—in particular the Republican leadership—did on that issue?

DA: Yes, I would have.

ES: The White House too?

DA: Yes. But I think the White House was given no choice in the matter. They would have had more sense than to do that.

ES: At the time, you were critical of Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader.

DA: Senator Frist was enthusiastically in favor of the move [to involve the feds in the Schiavo case]. He committed the same kind of error in judgment when he bought into the idea that, out of deference to our overzealous base, we ought to tie up the floor of the Senate with a two-day debate on same-sex marriage. It was pretty clear that more-important, more-urgent work with a greater relevance to the average American’s life was not being touched. Somehow they justified saying to the American people, “We want you to be entertained by a two-day debate on a subject as difficult and sensitive as same-sex marriage—even though we know that we’re not going to change any law—because it’s an important thing for you to hear and it allows us to score points on the other side.”

ES: Based on the ballot initiatives put forth in the past two election cycles, it too seems like a state issue.

DA: I would argue that it’s a state issue. And I would argue that if in fact the conservative party says, “The federal government shall give definition to marriage,” and then, at another time, if another majority should say, “The federal government mandates that marriage shall include people of the same sex,” then how does the small-government conservative make the argument that it’s not the business of the federal government to give definition to marriage? They were the first guys to say this is a legitimate prerogative of the federal government. They better be prepared for the real possibility that the definition of marriage might very well be what they’d never intended it to be in the first place.

ES: That’s not to say that you yourself support same-sex marriage.

DA: No, I don’t. But I think their having brought that bill to the floor did more than anything else that has been done in the last several years to ensure that the day will come when the federal government of the United States will no longer define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

ES: Back to immigration. What did the Republicans do wrong on that issue?

DA: Actually, the Senate Republicans got it right. We have a multifaceted problem here, and it begins with the fact that there are, in key areas of America, critical labor shortages that are capable of, and are, being filled for the most part by guest workers. Now, because our immigration service is so clumsy and, in my estimation, inhumane, those guest workers are [arriving here] through illegal entry to the United States. So what we need to do if we want to secure the border against illegal entry is administer a guest-worker program that recognizes the contribution to the American economy made by these very valuable, hardworking people.

ES: This is the John McCain position.

DA: You know, McCain put his position behind the eight ball by making it the McCain-Kennedy position. It might have been a little easier for Republicans in the House to swallow the correct policy if it had not been co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy.

ES: Isn’t that the problem with the Washington you no longer work in? We’ve gotten so divided that good policy is sacrificed at the altar of who-sponsored-what.

DA: One of the arguments that I always made was, “The idea is bigger than the man, the idea is bigger than the party, the idea is bigger than the moment, and the idea is bigger than me.” If we’re not

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