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POLITICS How Dick Armey Screwed Up

His role in the abortive coup against Newt Gingrich left the House majority leader stranded and alone. Instead of playing the angles, he should play the role that got him where he is: unswerving conservative leader.

IT’S EASY TO PINPOINT THE MOMENT DICK Armey ruined any chance he had of succeeding Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. It was during a July 16 meeting of the House Republican conference and a Capitol Hill newspaper had just published a story detailing how Armey, other members of the GOP leadership, and rebellious backbenchers had nearly ousted Gingrich as speaker.

If true, the story was dynamite, and toward the end of the meeting a moderate New York congressman, James Walsh, asked Gingrich’s closest lieutenants to explain what had happened and whether that morning’s newspaper account was to be believed. Armey was the only one to take the bait. After hemming and hawing, he eventually charged the story was “trash.” Lindsey Graham, a conservative second-term congressman deeply involved in the coup effort, immediately lunged out of his chair to go for the microphone, where he was going to expose what he believed was Armey’s lie. A colleague blocked Graham and he never spoke, but the damage was done: The spotlight quickly turned to Armey, and while he insisted he bad played no role in the botched coup, many of the coup plotters insisted otherwise.

The conventional wisdom among House Republicans quickly became that Armey wasn’t telling the truth, and for someone whose popularity rested on his colleagues’ belief that he could be trusted, this was a death blow. Armey’s stock quickly plunged, and the issue was no longer whether he would be speaker, but whether he would even be re-elected majority leader after the 1998 midterm elections.

How did Dick Armey, who has always indicated he can’t be bothered with the capital’s petty ways, get himself in such a pickle? It’s a question many of his one-time allies continue to ask. For as recently as a few months ago. he was seen as the natural successor to Gingrich, who has pledged to serve no more than eight years as speaker. And with Gingrich bedeviled by ethics woes and popularity problems, predictions were that Armey’s moment would be coming sooner rather than later. He encouraged the speculation by getting new glasses, distributing slick videotapes of himself appearing on political talk shows (intended to neutralize the charge he was not a good party spokesman), and quietly conveying his frustration with Gingrich’s leadership. Conservatives-who never entirely trusted Gingrich but who viewed Armey as a fellow true believer-salivated over the prospect of installing him as speaker.

What a difference one week can make, as those same conservatives now lump Armey in with Gingrich. The comparison is unfair, but Armey is just the latest in a long line of politicians who have had their entire careers reduced to how they respond to a crisis. Think of the damage done to Jimmy Carter because of his bungled attempts to manage the Iranian hostage situation. Or think of what Margaret Thatcher’s dramatic decision to retake the Falkland Islands did for her reputation. The stakes were admittedly lower for Armey, but his colleagues nonetheless came away from the episode believing he’s not ready for prime time.

The specific complaint is that Armey was a co-conspirator in the coup until learning he was unlikely to be elected speaker if Gingrich was dumped. At this point, Armey is said to have returned to Gingrich and shifted responsibility for the coup plotting to Tom DeLay, a Texan colleague who holds the No. 3 position in the Republican leadership. Armey acknowledges he attended meetings with other House GOP leaders where they discussed the possibilities of removing Gingrich, but he says “at no time…did I advocate or prepare to remove the speaker.”

What is not in dispute is that when some of the dissident backbenchers met with Armey a few hours after he had shifted his allegiance back to Gingrich, he told them their efforts were “immoral.” One congressional dissident I spoke with cited that comment during a harangue about Armey, telling me the majority leader had become “a comical figure.’”

But Dick Armey’s problems run deeper than a foiled palace coup. Indeed, his difficulties parallel the difficulties that face insurgent politicians who have succeeded in toppling the established order; how to make the transition from outside agitator to inside operator. This has been doubly difficult for Armey, who was tagged as a rebel from the moment he arrived on Capitol Hill in 1985.

Armey rose through the House Repub-lican ranks on the sheer force of his unyielding conservatism and his unconventional ways. He wore neckties emblazoned with the profile of free-market hero Adam Smith, he slept in the House gym and his congressional office to save money, and in 1991 he published an op-ed in The New York Times asserting George Bush’s budget director, Richard Darman, “should be thrown from the front door of the White House the way unsavory characters were ejected from Texas saloons” for refusing to embrace an economic growth plan.

In a caucus increasingly influenced by the bombast of Gingrich, Armey won acclaim. He developed a loyal cadre of allies who after the 1992 election catapulted him over a more senior colleague into the House GOP’s No. 3 slot. His noisy opposition to President Clinton’s budget and health care plans won him plaudits and still more support among the rambunctious group of Republicans elected in 1994. When the Contract with America’s luster faded and frustration mounted with Gingrich, Armey was widely viewed as a steady and conservative hand guiding the Republican ship.

But it’s obvious Armey as majority leader is not the same man as Armey the cranky conservative backbencher. Steve Moore of the Cato Institute, a free-market Washington think tank, explained to me one of Armey’s biggest changes: “He’s become less ideological and more partisan.” Indeed, Armey’s biggest successes while in the minority-the creation of a base-closing commission, his incessant talk about eliminating agriculture subsidies-were the product of close work with House Democrats. Armey was also more willing to break with Republicans if he felt they were sacrificing principles, as highlighted by his vocal opposition to the 1990 budget deal.

Today, Armey rarely works with Democrats, rarely breaks with the Republican position, and regularly sacrifices his principles to get a deal. The recent balanced-budget agreement is a case in point. When its outlines were announced with great fanfare in May, Armey was an enthusiastic supporter and even tangled with conservatives like Phil Gramm who expressed opposition. Armey charged that if Gramm had been around for the Creation, God would not have been able to rest from His work on the seventh day. Instead, said Armey, God would have had to “spend the whole day explaining it and justifying it to Phil Gramm.” Comments like these bred suspi-:ion and distrust among conservatives, who questioned how Armey could support a budget containing the largest increase in education spending since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

The package was sweetened by a reduced capital gains tax, but this was offset by all the other targeted tax relief that further cluttered an already sloppy tax code. It was precisely the kind of deal a more junior Dick Armey would have opposed. But there he was on CNN a few days after Congress approved the package in late July saying it “was built on the principles of the Republican Party.”

After the budget deal, the abortive coup, and two-and-a-half years of trying to enforce parly discipline, Armey has a big problem: He lacks a constituency among House Republicans. Anti-Newt conservatives-once his strongest allies-have soured on him, committee chairmen resent his efforts to rein in their authority, and the small but feisty claque of moderates argue his doctrinaire conservatism blinds him to political realities and makes him an unrepresentative majority leader.

The prevailing mood toward Armey was made crystal clear at a July 23 meeting of House Republicans when he and other coup participants spoke. DeLay gave a highly detailed account of his actions and was greeted with a standing ovation. Armey, by contrast, spoke in generalities for 10 minutes and received only scattered applause.

Under normal circumstances, Armey could turn to the Republicans who make up the Texas congressional delegation for support. The group meets every Thursday for lunch in the Capitol and has built a camaraderie unmatched by any other large-state delegation. But Armey’s standing among the other Texans is weaker now than it’s been since he arrived in Washington. His chumminess with DeLay-previously one of his closest friends in the House- has been tested by the coup’s aftermath. DeLay feels Armey has unfairly blamed him for the entire affair, and Armey has done little to patch up relations. During a conference call with reporters shortly after the coup story broke, Armey was asked about DeLay. The line went silent for 10 seconds, and when Armey finally spoke, all he could say was “Sorry, I dropped my telephone receiver.”

It’s obvious Dick Armey’s current balance sheet contains many more liabilities than assets. His staff, perhaps the most capable on Capitol Hill, will see to it thai he wins back some of the popularity that got him elected majority leader, but it’s not going to be easy. His colleagues deride him as an ineffective party spokesman, pointing to his speaking style (he doesn’t speak in complete sentences and tends to ramble a lot) and verbal gaffes (referring to Rep. Barney Frank as “Barney Fag”).

Exacerbating Armey’s problems is that being majority leader of the House of Representatives offers few opportunities for dramatic action, particularly while Gingrich is speaker and Clinton is president. His flat tax proposal is popular, but it’s not going anywhere as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House. Armey has some other worthy policy initiatives, such as school choice, but the more he talks about another one of his pet issues- reforming automobile insurance-the quicker he will fade into oblivion.

If he wants to regain his colleagues’ confidence and resurrect any chance of becoming speaker, Armey’s best bet might be to step down as majority leader and adopt the unswerving devotion to conservatism that won him popularity in the 1980s. He’d have more time to devote to his real passions- shrinking government and overhauling the tax code-and could adopt the role of elder statesman, knowing that in a pinch his colleagues could call on him to take over as speaker. The last position he resigned from-chairman of the economics department at North Texas State University in Denton-was a catalyst for him to run for Congress. Resigning was risky then and it’s risky now, but Dick Armey didn’t become one of America’s most influential politicians by shying away from risk. Now is no time for him to start playing safe.