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Archive for Monday, December 17, 2001

Delay takes his politics seriously

December 17, 2001

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— By nature, Dick Armey is much more of a policy advocate than a politician a longtime academic more at home with the supposed "laws" of economics than with the rough-edged, often sloppy compromises of the legislative world. But the House majority leader, who announced his retirement plans last week, chose in 1984 to leave the campus of University of North Texas, where he headed the economics department, to challenge an incumbent congressman and become a freshman legislator.

Like Ronald Reagan, then at the height of his power and popularity, Armey never lost sight of what he came to Washington to do: Shrink government. He never met a tax cut he didn't like and he was relentless in trying to eliminate what he regarded as wasteful spending, whether on social programs, military bases or farm subsidies.

That kind of single-mindedness breeds enemies, but Armey is also a down-home guy with a fondness for country and western songs. His rise to power reflected something more than good-old-boyism in the House Republican Conference.

He was part of a generation of GOP members who, chafing under the long dominance of the Democrats, believed that the only way to throw off the shackles of permanent minority status was to sharpen and dramatize their ideological differences with the opposition. That called for intellectual and doctrinal muscle, of which Armey has an abundance. He was the principal author of the "Contract With America," the manifesto Republicans used to end the 40-year Democratic control of the House in 1994.

Armey has never been as comfortable leading a majority as he had been as a gadfly in the minority. He had a tense, sometimes stormy relationship with Speaker Newt Gingrich and was fatally compromised, in the eyes of many colleagues, when he wavered into an ambivalent role during the failed 1997 coup against Gingrich, first seeming to encourage the insurrection and then rushing to Gingrich's side to suppress it.

The distrust bred by that incident made it unlikely Armey would ever rise above majority leader to become speaker. When Gingrich stepped down in 1998, Bob Livingston easily leapfrogged Armey, and when Livingston in turn took himself out of the running, Denny Hastert, now the speaker, did the same thing to Armey.

The man who is the favorite to succeed Armey as the Republican floor leader when this Congress ends, a year from now, is another Texas conservative, Tom DeLay, now the House majority whip the No. 3 spot in the leadership.

DeLay is a different, and much more familiar, type. If ideas drive Armey, DeLay's motivation is principally the quest for power. That is not to say he is devoid of ideology. The owner of a small exterminating company, he is as hostile to "Big Government" in all its manifestations as Armey. But one of his closest associates in the House sees a big difference.

"Dick Armey is a policy guy," this congressman told me. "DeLay has ideological conservative principles, but he is a pragmatic politician. When it comes to the will of the House, no one has a better sense of it. DeLay can work things out to the point that most of our members can live with the consensus. Most ideologues have difficulty doing that."

The knock on DeLay from Republican moderates is that Democrats have taken his nickname, "The Hammer," and turned him into a symbol of hardheaded, right-wing intransigence. In an era of Bush-inspired "compassionate conservatism," the exterminator-turned-whip seems to many from the Midwest and Northeast districts where Republicans have to struggle for survival to be the wrong symbol and spokesman for their party.

But a longtime ally outside Congress insists, "Tom is a big-tent Republican. He wants to grow the Republican majority."

Time will tell on that score, but one thing is certain. Whatever advantage Democrats might gain from having DeLay as a more visible target, they will not welcome him as an adversary inside the House. He has made a habit of winning the close votes, most recently the one-vote squeaker that expanded the president's trade-negotiating powers.

If Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, now chief deputy whip, the position previously occupied by Hastert, should succeed DeLay in the whip's position, the House Republicans will be led by three men well-schooled in rounding up votes.

DeLay has a trait found more often among Democrats than Republicans: He thinks about politics and works on securing political advantage all the time. It is not a gentleman's hobby for him. It's his calling, and he is no gentleman.

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