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 serving ideas, we’re missing the point of our being here in the first place.

ES: And that, in essence, is what you are complaining about, right? That is not what’s happening in the Republican party.

DA: That’s exactly what they have been failing to do. They have served themselves through a partisan orientation. Basically the governing question from which they define their behavior has been, What can I do in this job for myself and my political future and my future in public office? What does it mean to my desire to be the next chairman? What does it mean to my desire to be the next Speaker or the next majority leader or the next whatever?

ES: Left out of the equation are the constituents they’re supposed to be serving. In fact, in many of the races in which incumbent Republicans just lost, they were shocked to discover very late in the election that their constituents had turned against them.

DA: Right. Take a look, for example, at [Arizona congressman] J. D. Hayworth, a long-term incumbent who lost his seat in the House. I think just about everybody who has examined that race has concluded that his very harsh rhetoric on immigration was instrumental to his loss.

ES: And here he is in a state that’s enormously affected by that issue.

DA: Who is the genius that said, “Now that we’ve identified that [the Hispanic community] is the fastest-growing demographic in America, let’s do everything we can to make sure we offend them”? Who is the genius that came up with that bright idea?

ES: Let me ask you about some of the geniuses who are at least partly responsible for allowing the House to get to a point where that’s one of the operating principles. Start with your old friend Denny Hastert. You still support the outgoing Speaker personally?

DA: Denny Hastert is an excellent person. He’s a real decent human being, a man with no secret, selfish agenda. But the fact is, he didn’t do his job very well.

ES: What did he do wrong?

DA: He didn’t take ownership of the responsibilities of the House. Long before it happened—for the good of the institution, for the good of the party, for the good of governance—there was a time when somebody needed to tell Tom DeLay, “Tom, it’s time for you to leave.” People came to me, but particularly with my personal history with Tom it was very difficult for me to say anything critical of him, because it would be so easily misconstrued as a personal vendetta.

ES: You two were never exactly friends.

DA: No. But my point to them was, it’s not my job to tell Tom DeLay that it’s time for him to leave. It’s the Speaker’s job. That’s why he gets the big bucks. It’s not a pleasant thing. I mean, who wants to be the guy to go tell another member of Congress that you think he should leave the office he’s been duly elected to? But on the other hand, if you come before a group of people and say, “As an officeholder in this body, I am asking you to trust me to be the leader of our caucus,” you’ve asked for the big job. You’ve asked for the big responsibilities. If you don’t want to accept the responsibilities, don’t ask for the job.

ES: What was DeLay’s problem?

DA: I always said Tom DeLay was a perfect example of somebody raised in the Legislature in Austin: somebody who’s in business for himself, who has a very limited vision of public policy, which I think he did, and a very self-centered vision of public policy, which I think he did.

ES: Was he an idea person?

DA: In all the years I knew him, I don’t ever remember Tom DeLay having an idea. I remember Tom DeLay saying, “I can tell you what the most vocal and militant people in our base expect us to do.”

ES: You never felt as if those people were your base, did you?

DA: I don’t guess I did. I came to Washington as a person who embraced Ronald Reagan’s vision of the government, which was, you know, an intellectual legacy given to us by Barry Goldwater. I was a Goldwater baby, and most of the people who I had the privilege of working with, people who were on my staff, were Reagan babies.

ES: The DeLay wing was not populated by Goldwater and Reagan folks.

DA: No. They were people like [Christian activist] James Dobson, who were in business for themselves. They never understood that this isn’t about them. It’s about the service we perform for this nation, how we honor the great traditions of this nation, how we engage in public policy that’s consistent with the foundation principles of this nation. For example, I would argue that James Dobson is an example of somebody who never understood what they meant by separation of church and state.

ES: In all the years he was in office, you could never have accused Ronald Reagan of being a captive of the religious right.

DA: But what did he do while he was in office? He defended the lives of the unborn with a great sense of commitment and purpose. He did so many things that a person like James Dobson would say, “We expect the government to do [that],” and he did them, as it were, cheerfully as unto the Lord, because that’s the way he was working. That’s what he believed in. He never thought it was about him. He always thought, “What can I do that’s a service to this great nation?”

ES: He also never misunderstood that there are places where church and state needed to be separate, and you never did either.

DA: I hope not. I’ve found over the years that I’m frankly not all that objective when asked to give testimony about my own virtue.

ES: Would you agree that in the outgoing Congress there are a great number of members who do seem to misunderstand the concept?

DA: To any true lover of liberty, to anybody who believes in the separation of church and state, the Schiavo case should be a place where you sit there saying, “Alarm! Alarm!”

ES: Is there an appropriate place for religion in politics?

DA: If we advocate righteousness and if in the way we live our lives we exemplify righteousness, we are winning by doing our duty. But if we try to mandate righteousness, we are wrong. What we’ve seen happening is people saying, “I feel a need to be perceived as a man of faith,” because in the current discourse of public policy, the predilection, fostered by the Republicans, is that if you are a Democrat it is in part because you are a person of little faith.

ES: You’re godless.

DA: Yeah. The fact is, most of the people who congregate in the Democratic party do so because they have an expansive view of the goodness of the government, and they would probably be theologically more liberal than I would be. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad people. It just means that they enjoy the theology that you see in congregations that are more progressive, social policy—wise, and less Bible centered.

ES: But do you believe that the Democratic party is faithless or godless, as has been said, I’m afraid, by members of your party?

DA: That’s pretty risky business isn’t it, to set yourself up as a person who decides such things?

ES: Speaking of risky business, the exit polls on Election Day suggested that the public saw your party as more corrupt than the Democrats. Do you agree?

DA: There were people in my party whose behavior in office was obviously corrupt. You would have to be the worst kind of partisan apologist or ignoramus not to have seen that and not to have been appalled by that.

ES: Did you believe that Congressman DeLay was corrupt?

DA: I believe that Tom DeLay was very much involved with most of the people we see in the [Jack] Abramoff stories. Half of them were his own staff.

ES: A lot of Texans seem to be supporting John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Have you got a favorite candidate?

DA: I don’t see anybody I’m excited about—about whom I would say, “You know, this guy looks a lot like Ronald Reagan.” I think Newt Gingrich has had a public life that has been defined by a commitment to ideas and has had a national vision.

ES: He might be somebody.

DA: He might be. Newt’s ideas seem a little bit whimsical and hard to grasp, but they were never parochial; it was never about “Elect me because I can tell you what’s in it for me.” So while there are aspects of his personal life that have been disappointing to me, in his public life he has been, by and large, a real guy.

ES: What about the Democrats? Now that they’re running Congress, do you think they have a chance of doing good work on the country’s behalf?

DA: No. When I decided to be involved in politics, I chose the Republican party because of its vision. [The Democrats’] vision is antithetical to what I believe is the correct understanding of the way the world works and what values should govern the world. The Republicans’ losing this election is a very undesirable thing for the well-being of our country, and the well-being of our country is far more important to me than any political party or any politician. And, you know, I have a lot of good friends who are Democrats. One of my favorite people in the whole history of my time in Washington is [California congressman] Ron Dellums. My line with Ron was, “Ron, you got a master’s degree in social work from Berkeley in the sixties; you never had a chance.” He was misguided on every subject under the sun. But he was a decent man and an able person from his point of view.

ES: Nice that you have the ability to see past political differences. That’s too rarely in evidence today in Washington.

DA: It ain’t that hard a thing to do, quite frankly.