“Keep Your Mouth Shut” on Social Issues

If you want to be a winning Republican, says Dick Armey, rally voters around economic policy and keep quiet about social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
  • Transcript


Question: Why did the Republicans lose in 2008?

Dick Armey: Well, the biggest factor – the Republican Party lost because, first it vacated any commitment to small government conservatives and budget issues, you know, holding the line on spending and so forth. And then they elevated an aggressive assault on the social issues. And they got on the wrong side of these issues most often.

If in fact you take the social conservative and the economic conservative and you combine them, as Reagan did, as we did with the Contract, and resistance to the power of the state, you've got a happy coalition of people that can be successful and attractive to the voters. But if in fact, you go, as they did under the failing final years of the Republican majority, "We're going to expand the power of the state in order to impose our social values on the community," then of course, they even lost the evangelicals. They get confused by that and say, "Wait a minute, I didn't think we were about making the government bigger and stronger and more dictatorial in our lives. We thought we were about our freedom and our liberties, and so forth."

They basically got too aggressive on social policy and too complacent on economic policy and they were basically losing both of the two major components of their prior big tent that they had with Reagan that they had with the Contract. People got disinterested in them and disappointed in them and of course that set the stage for the Democrats to come rushing in with their big victory, mostly born out of disappointment in the Republicans.

Question: On which social policies did the party become too aggressive?

Dick Armey: Well, obviously the first one was this heartbreaking issue called Terry Schiavo, down in Florida. Here you have a lady on a life support system contesting between her husband and her parents on whether or not that should continue, and you had all of a sudden a resolution passed through the House, through the Senate, signed by the President that says, "The federal government will dictate to the Courts in Florida what should be their judgment." So, what they did with this, first of all they got involved in a family's private business. What's the federal government doing in that? Secondly, they vacated their historic notion of resistance to judicial activism, and they vacated the historic commitment to federalism, "Let the states run the state's business and keep the federal government out of it." They were historically opposed to mandates by the feds to the states, and so they said, "Well if a federal legislative body, and executive branch dictates to a state Court what their judgment must be, then all of these things are fine." Well, this was way, way heavy-handed and expanding the power of the state into the family's business, into the state's business at the federal level.

The other one that was frankly very difficult intellectually for a lot of these folks to grasp was the whole issue of homosexual marriages. In '96, because of an aggressive thrust by a governor in Massachusetts, and a Mayor in San Francisco trying to use the power of the state to impose homosexual marriage on the community, the Republicans who resisted that prospered electorally. They came back two years later and they said, "You know that was a good issue for us, let's start a new fight." So, they jumped from the defensive side of the ball to the offensive side of the ball and said, "We will expand the power of the state in order to give definition to marriage."

Well, all of a sudden, they think their issue is the homosexual marriage issue, but the issue is really in this case, are we resisting expansion in the power of the state for social policy purposes, or are we trying to advance the power of the state for those same purposes and different outcomes? And, of course, they lost again. So, this is just simply, again, not understanding the core value that binds conservatives together, resistance to growth of the power of the state and defense of individual liberty.

Question: Can the Republicans win in 2010 and 2012?

Dick Armey: They can. President Bill Clinton in '93 and '94 became a very big and scary disappointment. He built a stage – we got entrepreneurial and we jumped up on that stage with a creative vision for America and public policy for America. If the Republicans can recognize that this administration is building faster and even bigger stage of discontent and worry and get up on that with new ideas, new commitments to big notions of freedom, liberty, and small government restraint, responsibility, respect, they can do that. And the Democrats know that.

Right now, the Democrats see the power of small government conservatism as the big movement in America more clearly than the Republicans do. Republicans right now are still, like I say, wallowing around, entertaining themselves with their little "Itty bitty big tent" theory that requires very little, less commitment than candidate recruitment. “Let's go find ourselves a liberal, run them as a Republican and then we're sure to win.” That's a sure way to lose. The fact of the matter is, you're not going to be attractive to the voters you need, the swing voters.

By the way, let me just point out that in New Jersey, just across the river from New York, the small government conservative movements, when they saw a Republican that could win and beat the very liberal Democrat, they abandoned their candidate and went there. So, they can be very practical in how they cast their votes if they see a chance for a victory.

Question: Can Republicans only win by becoming more, not less, conservative?

Dick Armey: No, no. The center of politics in America today is small government conservatives, the fiscal conservatism. That's the center's stake in the big tent. Love of individual liberty. Well, the Democrats are scared and so they're taking or freedom away to control our own healthcare? So, what the Republicans need to do is understand the center. Basically what they want to do is they want to have a right-wing of the Republican Party and a Left-Wing of the Republican Party. They don't want the center body, which is where all the voters are standing, on middle ground. So, the center of political values in America, policy positions in America is small government conservatism. And what the Republicans need to do is say -- and I’ll give you an example. Mike Castle in Delaware is a good fiscal conservative. Now, the Evangelicals are never going to love him on social issues, but he will be elected the next Senator because he stands on that center ground of fiscal conservatism.

So, again, if he stands there and says, "I'm going to defend against irresponsible spending, I'm going to try to fight against the unreasonable and unnecessary growth of power of government and defend individual liberties." He stands on safe ground. He's hardly a right-wing conservative, for example in the mold of Dick Armey. But he can stand comfortably on that ground. And that ground is the center ground.

Question: How can the GOP appease both its evangelical and non-evangelical members?

Dick Armey: You really need to get these social issues to the back burner. And I happen to be an evangelical. And I'm very serious in my appreciation of the Lord Jesus going to the cross for me personally. And I am very committed to the life of the unborn. But, when I ran in 1984, I met with the head of the Texas Right to Life and he said, "What's your position on right to life?" And I stated my position and he says, "That's great, we love you're for it, now keep your mouth shut about it. You don't need to talk about these issues. Don't get them out there in front. Talk about the economic issues and what you need to do." Certainly I wouldn’t suggest to anybody that they should not have a clear resolve on this. But what you have right now is two competing theories of big tent. And it's kind of interesting to watch this. There is right now what I call, "The itty bitty theory of Big Tent," which is, we need Republican candidates, and the whole tent should be defined by the behavior of our candidates. And we need some candidates that act like Ronald Reagan, and some candidates make it clear they are willing to acquiesce to the liberal’s agenda.

So, this is what I would call the "little schizophrenic Tent," and it's just going to confuse the voters, it's not going to inspire them and they're just going to go away.

Or you can take the massive big tent notion which is, "We are a party that's committed to policy principles with the wonder of the Constitution, the magic of individual liberty, the restraint of big government, and these principles will govern our behavior. And there is room in this tent for everybody irrespective of party labels and things of this nature. Nothing superficial about us, this is a very substantively defined big tent." That is the tent that the Republicans have always won in, in the past and can win in the future. They will not win in the "Itty bitty little tent."

Recorded on November 11, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen