Dick Armey, the former University of North Texas economics professor, U.S. House majority leader and hired-gun Washington lobbyist, now serves as the chairman of Freedom Works, a nonprofit that bills itself as "dedicated to educating, training, and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of volunteer activists to fight for less government, lower taxes, and more freedom." With Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of Freedom Works, he is the co-author of the recently published book Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. A North Dakota native, Armey represented the 26th Congressional District of Texas in the House from 1985 until his retirement in 2003.
Armey talked with the Tribune by phone on Saturday; an edited transcript and full audio follow.
TT: Is the Tea Party a conservative movement in the Republican/Democrat sense, or is it a fiscal movement?
Armey: This is a constitutionally limited small government movement, and our focus is mostly on the economic issues — clearly the questions about the budget, the budget size, the budget deficit, the impact on future generations, even with respect to the question of possible future insolvency of, if not the entire federal government, certainly programs within the government. And just generally, irresponsible intrusions against personal liberty.
TT: Is this a threat to Republicans or Democrats or both?
Armey: I have no doubt that both political parties and formal political institutions are threatened by this movement: the Democrats, because the movement is basically born out of a fear of the Democrats and a commitment to remove them from office; and the Republicans, because this movement is determined to reform the Republican Party, rehabilitate it and make it a disciplined party of service to the foundation principles of the country. That translates to average officeholders as hard work, which is not something they have a great affinity for.
Audio: Dick Armey
TT: When was the last time the Republican Party was in harmony with what you see now as the Tea Party movement?
TT: Were the Bush years where the Republican Party went astray? And can you tell me what you think happened?
Armey: There's no doubt about it. As soon as the Republican Party in office began to spend, you had the more or less goofy earmark strategy that resulted in this awfully ugly explosion of earmarks — that was a shortsighted political strategy contrived primarily by Tom DeLay. And then, of course, when President Bush came in, he had the education bill, he had Medicare Part D, he had TARP. It seemed to me like President Bush just went on an eight-year spending spree that just was totally frustrating to the conservatives. It finally got to the point where we all knew the disappointment in the Bush administration was so great that a Democrat was going to be elected president. Barack Obama comes along, promising change and hope, and then he doubles down on every big spending program that Bush initiated and, frankly, he's just scared the devil out of these folks.
TT: You see a lot of United We Stand/Ross Perot T-shirts at these rallies. Is the sort of thing that comes around when an economy is bad and disappears when the cycle turns?
Armey: No, it comes around when people in office don't live up to the expectations that the constituency has about what's good service to the oath of their office. Ross Perot wouldn't have had a leg to stand on if George Herbert Walker Bush hadn't raised taxes in the fall of '90. In fact, we know that George Herbert Walker Bush lost his re-election and caused a lot of other Republicans to lose elections because of that disappointment.
TT: How is this manifesting itself in 2010 races?
Armey: I have not seen an actual Tea Party candidate. There are candidates like Marco Rubio in Florida, like young [Mike] Lee over in Utah, candidates who have earned the respect and support of the Tea Party activists, and they are almost always the constitutional-limitation, against-big-government candidates. So what you would call the big-spending wing of the Republican Party is basically being told, "The swing vote is going against you, and you're losing your primaries." We will see that as the effect on the Republican Party, and then we will see the more conservative Republicans beating the Democrats in the fall.
TT: How do you see it in Texas, where the governor and some other candidates are trying to play to this audience?
Armey: Well, clearly they recognize a big swing vote when they see it. For the most part, Republican congressmen in Texas are conservative. A lot of them just got stuck with George Bush when he came along with TARP — and TARP is the big lightning rod in this whole thing. An awful lot of Republicans who knew better went along with it because it was the program brought along by a Republican president from Texas. And now, of course, they're trying to make up to these folks that are so bitterly angry over such an irresponsible vote. In the future, when some Republican president goes off on some cockamamie spending spree that has no foundation in sound governance, [that president] is going to find that his party members in Congress are not going to be so willing to follow him off that cliff.
TT: Is this powerful enough to create a new political party or just to influence the parties that are already here?
Armey: I think that everybody understands that Ross Perot was a spoiler; Ralph Nader was a spoiler for the Democrats. What we need is a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. We need a rehabilitation of the Republican Party. But anybody that goes a third-party route is probably walking down a pretty blind alley, leading to nowhere. Our goal is to have a conservative majority in Congress. Not a Republican majority. A Republican majority that's not a conservative majority is nothing but an echo of the Democratic Party, and we're not interested in that.
Armey: Well, Rick Perry's a good politician. I think he always has his political ear to the ground, and he is always aware of what's going on. He picks up very quickly on things. He's had a few really, really bright moments — for example, when the hurricane hit Houston and the folks were out there on the road, scared, and he brought the gas trucks out. I thought that was a really smart move, and it certainly caused a lot of people to appreciate him.
TT: Perry says he spotted this movement on Tax Day 2009. When did it become apparent to you that this was a momentary thing?
Armey: That was the day that I first really saw that, hey, this is a big deal. I happened to be in Atlanta that day. Fifteen thousand people at a Tax Day rally. [Perry] was a little bit quicker than most politicians in that he was alert to see that. A lot of them on that day just thought it was something they could ignore and it would go away.
TT: How do you think this plays out?
Armey: Well, in this election cycle, we will end up with a conservative majority in Congress. President Obama is already assured he will not be re-elected. To his credit, he's done that on his own hoof. I mean, his malfeasance in office has been so striking to the American people [that] there's no way he'll be re-elected. So if the Democrats want to hold the White House, they're going to have to beat him in their own primary in 2012. The fact of the matter is, the Democrats swung the pendulum so hard and so far to the left that they scared the American people to the point where they're moving it back to the right.
TT: This movement doesn't have a clear leader in front. Who do you think might emerge?
Armey: There's a lot of them out there. We just watch and see. Barack Obama, when he ran for president, won a talent contest. The voters looked at the whole contest through a very shallow set of lenses, and he got away with it. Anybody who expects to win the presidency in 2012 had better expect to win on a substantive ground of proven performance, not just lip service, good looks and talented speech-making.
TT: Is Dick Armey one of the people interested in doing that?
Armey: Oh, no, no, no, no. I've got 34 goats that depend on me daily. I couldn't be away that long.