• The Wall Street Journal
    • NOVEMBER 20, 2010

    Revolutionary Do-Over

    An old Washington story goes that when Martians land near the White House, everyone inside the Beltway flees in terror. Everyone, that is, except for the folks at the favor-factories known as Congress’s Appropriations Committees, who rush to greet the spaceship and say, “We’re here to help with the transition.”

    There is always a danger that this election’s invading aliens—aka, tea partiers—will gradually succumb to Beltway mores. Former GOP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, now a big-time Washington lobbyist, has already told the Washington Post that it’s imperative for his tribe to “co-opt” the tea partiers arriving in D.C.

    But Dick Armey—Republican House majority leader for eight years following the GOP landslide of 1994 and now chairman of the influential advocacy group, FreedomWorks—is pointing them in the opposite direction. Mr. Armey’s organization has nurtured and mentored tea party candidates for the past 18 months. He helped promote the “Contract from America,” a 10-point, grass-roots inspired program to “re-limit” government that more than 70 new Senate and House members signed. And he’s sent each new member of Congress a seven-page memo on how not to be co-opted.

    Mr. Armey’s top agenda item for the 112th Congress is, he says, “to defund, repeal and replace the government takeover of health care and adopt a patient-centered approach.” Hardly anyone thinks repeal is in the cards, at least for now. Even assuming repeal could get through the House, it would likely die in the Democratic Senate. And if it did reach the president’s desk, Barack Obama would almost certainly veto it.

    But during a visit with him last month at a tea party rally outside Chicago and a subsequent chat while he was at home in Dallas, Mr. Armey insists that a series of moves involving “thinking smart and acting boldly” can exert pressure that will bring down ObamaCare.

    Terry Shoffner



    A new Gallup poll finds that 36% of Republicans (and even 12% of Democrats) believe repeal of ObamaCare should be Congress’s No. 1 priority. “A quick, straight repeal vote will attract no fewer than 20 House Democrats,” Mr. Armey predicts. Citizen pressure on the 23 Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2012 could lead to Senate passage.

    Mr. Armey expects an Obama veto, “but that will be then between him and the American people.” It will, he believes, set up an epic debate in the 2012 presidential contest as the flaws of government-mandated insurance become clearer.

    Lawsuits challenging ObamaCare’s constitutionality are also far more likely in the wake of this month’s election. In light of the growing budget pressures the health law puts on states, about half of the nation’s state attorneys general will argue for expedited Supreme Court review of the Florida lawsuit now in federal district court.

    In any event, Mr. Armey says the early failure to repeal ObamaCare legislatively wouldn’t deflate tea party members of Congress or their supporters. “Unlike the GOP in 1994, they don’t think they have a big shot mandate,” he avers.

    Rather than encourage a repeat of the high-stakes 1995 confrontation with the Clinton White House that shut down the government and hurt the GOP’s image, he counsels a strategy of selectively targeting ObamaCare’s 159 new bureaucratic entities for repeal, denying the IRS funds to enforce fines and penalties on employers, and using the reconciliation process so the Senate can pass budget-related restrictions on ObamaCare with a simple majority.

    And what, I asked, if Mr. Obama stonewalls? Mr. Armey did not say exactly what would be next, but he did note that the power of the Internet to connect and educate people today makes it easier to get the facts out and mobilize public support on behalf of Republican positions.

    Mr. Armey maintains that his advice is only meant to help GOP leaders in Congress who pledged to repeal ObamaCare. But privately more than a few of those leaders are chafing at what they see as back-seat driving by the 70-year-old economist who left office eight years ago. Mr. Armey says his goal is simply to remind politicians that whatever power is exercised in Washington flows from the people.

    Dick Armey was head of the economics department at North Texas State University in Denton when he ran for political office in 1984. Although a political nobody at the time, he beat a Democratic incumbent with volunteers and little money. The conservative Republican would team up with liberals to hold down farm subsidies and form the military base-closing commission that is a rare example of bipartisan success in shrinking government. He became majority leader in 1995 as the vanguard of the Gingrich Revolution.

    But it was his experience in 1994, when Democrats still ran the House, that convinced Mr. Armey of the power of citizen activism. A bill requiring teachers to be certified was viewed with horror by home-schooling parents who feared they would have to comply. Mr. Armey took up their cause. He says “I was laughed out of a committee hearing on a Thursday, but then the parents weighed in.”

    Thousands deluged members with so many faxes and telephone calls that Congress’s phone system was shut down. “By the next Wednesday the only ‘no’ vote on the House floor against killing that provision came from its sponsor,” he recalls. “All that happened before the Internet.”

    At an orientation meeting that FreedomWorks held for freshman members last weekend, Mr. Armey pressed his model of how to make Congress work for them: “Don’t obsess over lobbying [the] leadership over what committee you’re on, you can still write laws if your idea is good enough and you generate enough outside support.”

    During the campaign, Mr. Armey spoke of a tea party “hostile takeover” of the GOP. And now? He says that the tea party and the Republicans are working well together.

    Tea party activism, Mr. Armey says, has gone through several stages since its birth less than two years ago. The first stage came when people felt “the wrong things were being forced down their throats by those who were both misguided and arrogant.” That phase peaked in the town hall meetings over health care in the summer of 2009.

    The second phase was when establishment candidates were challenged and often lost in GOP primaries this year. Mr. Armey takes particular pride that FreedomWorks was one of the first groups who got behind the candidacies of Senators-elect Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida.

    The third stage came with the tea party victories in November. Now the challenge will be to continue to oppose bad legislation while preparing to nominate and elect a tea party-approved candidate for president and capture control of the Senate in 2012. Mr. Armey shies away from discussing his favorites, but says Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels “has a fine record” and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty “has real potential.”

    Mr. Armey largely dismisses concerns that weak tea party candidates—like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle—cost the GOP several key races this year. “The establishment has to take the blame for putting up status quo people who couldn’t beat those weak opponents in primaries,” he says. “But in the vast majority of races from state legislature up to the Senate, even rookie tea party candidates did very well.” He is convinced that in 2012 “you will see even better and more savvy candidates.”

    I ask Mr. Armey what he believes are the biggest media misconceptions about the tea party. “They don’t think something is real if they can’t find who is at the head of it, like they can with unions today,” he chuckles. Mr. Armey also faults the media for thinking that people who believe in the Constitution are “somehow radical extremists.” He says one of the most heartening things he has seen in the birth of the tea party is that “more people have come to see that document as the best arrangement for limiting government and extending liberty ever devised.”

    But he’s also acutely aware that the last GOP Congress lost its way on limiting government. He blames the worst drift on the flawed model adopted by former Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, the man who replaced him as majority leader in 2003. “The theory was we could earmark or bribe our way to a permanent majority,” Mr. Armey sighs. “It fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the conservative voter base. They abhor crony capitalism and creating prescription drug benefits that aren’t paid for.”

    I remind him he was the second most powerful House leader for eight years of GOP control before Mr. DeLay fully took charge. He accepts some responsibility for the gradual neutering of the 1994 Republican Revolution during that period. And he says that that GOP Congress arrogantly assumed it had a mandate for dramatic change when, in fact, it had only won a chance to convince Americans that a different direction was needed.

    “I regret not publicly criticizing our course when we first presented a supplemental spending bill [in 1996] that wasn’t paid for,” he says. Another breakpoint came in 2001, he says, when President George W. Bush “abandoned any vestige of school choice in his No Child Left Behind education bill” because it might offend liberal congressional grandees. “Even Ted Kennedy was willing to put up with more choice than we wound up getting.”

    After 9/11, Mr. Armey became convinced that Mr. Bush’s single-minded focus on foreign wars was leading him to abandon any principled domestic agenda. He retired from Congress in 2002.

    Mr. Armey became a lobbyist with the firm of DLA Piper, and he’s been criticized in some tea party circles as one more Washington establishment figure. Mr. Armey bristles at that label.

    “When a couple years ago I had to choose between chairing FreedomWorks and a new lobbying role that would have precluded me from doing that, I gave up lobbying,” he says. “I make no apologies for securing my family’s financial future, but I left a lot of money on the table in order to stay at FreedomWorks.”

    As we finish our chat, Mr. Armey has one final piece of advice for the new conservative members he has done so much to elect. “The first rule of conservatism,” he chuckles, “is to accept that if you are true to yourself, Hollywood celebrities will never hug you in public. Ultimately, serving the people and upholding the Constitution will be much more satisfying.”

    Mr. Fund is a columnist for


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