Shortly after the war with Iraq began, Human Events Assistant Editor David Freddoso interviewed former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Tex.).
Armey, a great champion of free-market economics during his years in the House of Representatives, now serves as co-chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy (www.cse.org). CSE is a conservative grassroots organization that describes itself as “an army of activists committed to improving the well-being of American consumers through common-sense economic policies.”
Freddoso and Armey talked about the domestic agenda that would face President Bush once victory in Iraq was assured. It was Armey’s belief that this President Bush is much better positioned now than his father was 12 years ago to succeed on the home front after a successful military campaign.
Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Back in 1991, while the first President Bush was fighting a war in Iraq, he seemed to let the domestic agenda slip. The current President Bush is handling this better, isn’t he?
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Tex.): Well, in the 1991 fracas, Bush 41 had cast his die on taxes in the fall of 1990. Now, Armey’s axiom is that you can either be a pleasant surprise or a bitter disappointment in politics. By the fall of 1990, with respect to his base, George 41 had already defined himself as a bitter disappointment.
Now, there’s no doubt about it, that because of the way he executed Desert Storm, [the senior President Bush] was riding the crest of a very big wave of public acclaim. His standing in the polls was a great comfort to the White House at that time. I remember them basically dismissing my concerns about his re-election by pointing to those polls. I remember, in fact, telling [then-White House Chief of Staff John] Sununu, in the Cabinet room-no actually, it was in the Teddy Roosevelt Room-that I too had read those polls, and they didn’t mean a dang thing, that by the time the Democrats fielded a candidate, he would have only about 30% of the vote, because he’d lost 20% of his most committed base. And that’s of course the 20% that decided they’d go hunt up someone else, and found-what’s his name? Perot.
I believe that Bush created the Perotistas in 1990.
So I look back on Bush 41’s experience, and I see the war and his taxes as two separate and independent things. The taxes were perceived by the public first and foremost as a betrayal of his most dramatic and colorful and quotable campaign pledge: “Read my lips.” The war was a great success for him, but it didn’t win back for him what he lost with the tax increase.
Now Bush 43 is being true to his base and the Republican base value of: “We’re going to cut taxes,” and the new supply-side Republican base value of: “We’re going to cut taxes smart and grow the economy.” He’s staying true to that.
If the war comes out swiftly and decisively, as it did for 41, then obviously he’s got that ground to stand on. But he has no shaky foundation.
To go back to a Biblical analogy, Bush 41’s tax increases were his feet of clay. He may have come out of there standing tall as a strong statue, but he was still standing on those feet of clay. So Bush 43 will come out-and let’s hope and pray for the nation and for all of our young men and women that it is swift and decisive-if that happens, then he’s still standing on a solid foundation with his political base on his economic policy.
Some Republicans are expressing concern about the fact that we’re going to have a $550-billion deficit this year. Some “moderate” Republicans are complaining about, “Well, can we give a big tax cut? Is this appropriate in a time of war?” Is Bush doing the right thing in trying in this way to bring about the economic relief that the country needs?
The reason we have a deficit is really two-fold. First, the economy is in the doldrums and is not producing the revenue increases. Second, Congress always says, “What additional spending is necessary?”, not “What tradeoffs must we make in spending in order to fund this war?” So, since 9-11, we have had enormous, urgent increases in spending-often spending that was new and not heretofore anticipated, with the war against terrorism and the war against Iraq. Congress has not traded off one single dollar of what would be considered luxury or low priority items in the budget.
I can give you the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or the National Endowment for the Arts-both of which are activities that were questionable at their inception, but both of which have been proven to be no longer necessary even within their originating context today-and that’s a billion dollars. So when Congress won’t do its job of making these tradeoff decisions, it decides we have to add to the spending.
So the deficit is as much a matter of Congress not living up to its responsibilities as it is of the war or the President or anything else. The easy, superficial thought is, well, we’ve got these deficits, we’ve got this increased spending, we can’t afford the tax cuts. Well, that would be fine, if you accept that there is not a connection between cutting these taxes and growing the economy. But the reason we cut the taxes is to provide the incentive for growth for the economy. So you don’t belie the need for the tax increase because of deficits, because the deficits themselves are evidence that the tax decrease is needed.
We have an all-Republican government right now, and we have increased spending at a rate almost never seen before. Back in ’94 and even ’96, Republicans were talking about eliminating the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, in addition to the two agencies you’ve already mentioned. Have Republicans completely given up on fiscal discipline, and on the idea of eliminating government agencies?
Well, we’re certainly not doing what we did in the first three years of our majority. We had, what, three major entitlement reforms. We did agriculture, and then we backslid on that. Welfare reform seems right now to be the only major accomplishment we made out of that that’s holding water. And yeah, I don’t think we are the same Republican majority as we were in ’95, ’96, ’97.
Do you think that the caucus has become ideologically different, or that the ideas have simply lost momentum?
Well, first of all, the hardest thing to do in Washington is to cut spending. It’s an exhausting process.
But I know we’re different now than we were then. I just can’t explain why we are different. A lot of it is weariness. If you take the appropriators, and the Northeastern Republicans, we had to beat them along with the Democrats. So as the majorities slimmed down [between 1995 and 1999], their hand strengthened. They also don’t have the sense of unity that they had in the first three years. We don’t have that level of party discipline that we had back then, because we were just happy to be in the majority.
It struck me, after this last election, that this Congress might be more conservative than the Congress that was elected in 1994, even though the Republican majority is smaller. Do you think that may be the case? (See Human Events, Nov. 11, 2002.)
I do. I do think that’s the case. I believe that every class of Republicans that we have had, beginning in ’96, ’98, the coefficient of conservatism for the new class has been higher than the average for the conference. But I think Republicans have fallen into the business of letting their politics drive their economics. And so their conduct has become more governed by political considerations, and less governed by philosophical considerations, even with the more conservative people.
President Bush said before we invaded Iraq that if the United Nations does not step up and enforce its own resolutions, it’s going to become an irrelevant debating society. Well, they didn’t. Are they now an irrelevant debating society, and should they have any role in our administration of post-war Iraq?
Quite frankly, if the United Nations moved from where it has been to an irrelevant debating society, we would probably have an improvement. Because they seem to have existed for the last five to ten to fifteen years for little purpose other than to thwart the objectives of the United States. So my hope is that they move to the internationally improved position of irrelevant. But I think the fact that the President of the only superpower left on the globe says they are or are becoming irrelevant, puts definition to what is probably, in fact, fact, but nobody has dared to speak it. Sort of like calling the emperor’s clothes. I do think there’s a lot of weariness with the UN-it just seems to stumble and bumble and yammer and never do anything.
So should we shut them out of the post-war process?
My own view is we ought to shut them out. My old Daddy used to say it’s better to be persecuted than ignored. My own theory is, ignore them.