‘It’s Hard to See How Boehner Gets Out of This’: Dick Armey on the Shutdown

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Photo: Amy Sussman/2010 Getty Images

Former Texas congressman Dick Armey knows from shutdowns. A chief author of the "Contract with America" and a hardline general in the Gingrich Revolution, Armey was House majority leader when the Republicans faced off against Bill Clinton in late 1995, insisting they would only fund government if the president agreed to a balanced budget in seven years. In early January 1996, under pressure from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, the House Republicans agreed to abandon their demands and lift the shutdown.

Earlier this week, we called Armey and former Speaker Newt Gingrich to get their perspective on the current shutdown and its parallels to their own standoff with a Democratic president. (Gingrich-era House Majority Whip Tom DeLay did not respond to our interview request.) Armey, now retired on his north Texas ranch (with a hefty FreedomWorks severance package), shared his thoughts on Clinton ("a jolly fellow well met"), Gingrich ("like Ado Annie from Oklahoma!"), and what John Boehner should do ("If you’re going to be in command, damn it, then you got to command.").

Take me back to 1995. Why did Republican leadership think a government shutdown would be an effective tactic?
We had reason to believe we might be able to pull it off. Remember, we had had a lot of success that year. We were riding pretty high after the 100 days, and we felt that we were going to bring the Democrats to heel on our budget numbers. Newt insisted that presidents get blamed for shutdowns and that therefore we ought to develop a strategy that would take us to a shutdown. My position was that Republicans get blamed for shutdowns, because it’s incongruous to the public to think that the Democrats — who they perceive as people who love the government — would shut down the government. But Newt was just certain that he would outwit Clinton.

And he was wrong …
I think the fundamental miscalculation of ’95 was that we did not understand Clinton. Clinton was no sissy. He was not going to cave. And the public pressure wasn’t falling on Clinton; it was falling on us. The president was advantaged by being the guy who was trying so hard and being so accommodating to get through this against the stubborn and unreasonable Republicans. Tom DeLay always argued we were winning. If we were winning, I never saw it. We were getting the tar beat out of us.

At times during the shutdowns, Gingrich was perceived as being pushed around by his hard-line base. Did you see it that way?
The speaker, the budget chairman, and the whip were the principal driving forces behind the shutdown, and Newt shared the whole “We’ll show them who’s in charge around here” attitude. But let me walk you through the numbers. Being reelected as speaker means you have to please a majority of your majority. The majority of his majority was the “We’ll fight on to the death, win or lose,” hard-nosed Republicans from the ’94 freshmen class. And, frankly, Boehner has the same thing — same set of attitudes. Now, the problem is we also had that group that was the minority of the majority — but it was also with the majority of the body.

So you had those people coming to us and saying, “You’re letting these cranky, not-so-thoughtful people on your extreme right drive you. You’re letting the tail wag the dog!” And then we would hear from the majority of our majority, and it was, “You’re listening to this small gang of moderates. You’re letting the tail wag the dog!” I’d go home and tell my wife, “I must be a two-tailed dog, because they say I’m being wagged from both ends.”

So how did Newt come around to admitting defeat?
I was meeting with Newt and Bob Dole, and as I was walking out the door to go home, I heard Dole say, “Newt, will you stay here? I want to talk to you.” The next day I got a call from Newt, and he said, “Well, Dick, Bob Dole and I have agreed we’re going to end this.” I think Dole said, “Look, it’s just getting to be too miserable a process, we’re not behaving well, so let’s just get done with it.” Newt was a little bit like Ado Annie from Oklahoma! We always used to say, “If you want to know what Newt’s position is, check and see who was the last one in the room with him.”

Did the freshmen cry bloody murder?
It was a pretty bitter business. When Newt went before the conference, I remember being stunned when he said, “It’s immoral to shut down the government.” Damn it, it was his idea from the get-go!

And do you see many of the same dynamics in this shutdown?
There wasn’t that big ideological component back in ’95. Clinton was fundamentally a fiscal conservative, so more than anybody was ever willing to acknowledge, the goal of a balanced budget was a goal shared by Clinton in the first place. This fight now isn’t about the budget, it’s an ideological war. Nobody can surrender in this war, and their positions are mutually exclusive. Obamacare is the 50-year dream of the national Democrat party finally achieved. Everybody knew the Democrats were not going to take a bill to defund it. Boehner knew that, but he let himself get pushed into a shutdown anyway.

Is he really so afraid of the tea party?
Tea party, shmee party. It’s the Republican Study Committee, and they’ve been around since long before there was ever a tea party. But I still wonder: How does a guy like Ted Cruz, who’s relatively new in town, who nobody knows, who hasn’t even unpacked his bags, drive this whole process? It’s hard to see how Boehner gets himself out of this. My personal belief is his best model is Tip O’Neill. Tip O’Neill would have just said, “Look, I’m in charge here, you can take it or not.” I think John’s too worried about his speakership. If you’re going to be in command, damn it, then you got to command.

So how will it end?
I will predict this: When they agree on a spending bill, it will speak not at all to Obamacare and it will be at budgetary numbers higher than the sequestration level. And so in the end, the Republican conference will lose ground on the budget, they will lose ground on health care, they will lose ground politically, and they’ll be in a worse position than where Boehner had them going into this process. And they’ll all blame Boehner, bless his heart.