Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) may not be the head of the conservative “tea party” movement, but these days he seems to have more love for the grass-roots group than the party he once led.
Armey, one of the architects of the Republican revolution and Majority Leader from 1995 to 2003, said last week in an interview from the Conservative Political Action Conference that since he left the House he has watched the Republican Party erode.
“I’m a small-government conservative and I had the privilege, which I consider a high privilege, of serving in office as a Republican,” Armey told Roll Call after his speech to CPAC. “I thought the party was shining and I was proud for about four or five years after the [“Contract With America”], but there are times when the Republican Party breaks my heart.”
“I’m not really much of a party guy,” said Armey, who helped draft the contract, which outlined Republican promises if elected to the majority in 1994.
As the chairman of the limited-government group FreedomWorks, Armey has appeared at dozens of rallies and protests across the country to encourage the tea party movement, including one last September on the National Mall that drew thousands. The tea party effort is a relatively new one; those involved staged anti-tax and spending protests last year and showed up at numerous Member town halls last summer to voice opposition to the Democratic health care agenda.
Armey has not been shy about making this feelings abundantly clear to the Republican establishment.
Last year, he ran afoul of party leaders when he endorsed third-party candidate Doug Hoffman in the special election in New York’s 23rd district over Republican hopeful Dede Scozzafava, whom House GOP leaders had endorsed.
Scozzafava later dropped out of the race and endorsed Rep. Bill Owens, who became the first Democrat elected from that district in 100 years.
[IMGCAP(1)]Armey, a former professor and longtime fiscal conservative who served 18 years in the House before retiring in 2003, said Republicans who have been slow to embrace the tea party movement have done so at their own peril.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele “has gotten it more clearly and more vividly then anybody else,” Armey said. “Not only the correctness of this movement for America but the opportunity of congregating with this movement for his political party.”
Steele met with tea party activists at the RNC earlier this month.
“I think others are beginning to see it,” Armey said. “We are offering the chance to show they can rise to the occasion out there of their oath they take when they are sworn into office.”
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), who has been a supporter of the tea party movement, called Armey’s involvement with it a “great service.”
“I think Dick Armey has done a greater service as a leader of this grass-roots movement than he did in all his years in Congress,” he said. “I think he has taken his principled [conservatism] and his political experience and lent it to an effort to engage the American people on behalf of the conservative values.”
In August 2009, Armey resigned from his position at DLA Piper lobbying firm after his public opposition to the Democratic health care plan caused problems with the firm’s pharmaceutical clients. Armey served at DLA Piper while also serving as chairman of FreedomWorks.
He said at the time that his association with the group, which advocates for lower taxes and smaller government, had drawn so much negative media attention that he could no longer continue his work for the lobbying firm.
But even though Armey’s schedule and activities suggest he has become the public face of the tea party effort, he adamantly declined to take any credit for its success and warned others against trying to
“I am the chairman of FreedomWorks,” he said. “We work with the tea party, we’ve been there in existence, the largest most effective organization for small government in the country, since 1989.”
The former Texas lawmaker added: “The tea party is not a political party of any formal sense. It’s not organized. But it is a movement, a great energy commitment and a sense of urgency. And basically they represent that massive block of swing votes that can determine the outcome of an election.”
Armey warned that Republicans under the Dome should resist the urge to co-opt the group’s momentum.
“They are barking up the wrong tree,” he said of Members who might try to tried to hijack the movement. “Every individual that I encounter in the grass-roots activist movement begins with, I’m my own man’ or I’m my own woman.'”
Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler, co-founders of the Tea Party Patriots, a nonprofit group that organizes tea partiers, also downplayed Armey’s tea party role.
“I think he’s a tea party patriot,” Meckler said. “As the founder of an organization, his organization has been very helpful providing general support and guidance.”
But Meckler said members of the movement are more concerned with the values it represents, not any individual leader.
“I think most people in the tea party movement would say, Dick who?'” Meckler said. “They really don’t care.”
Martin pointed to the large showing at last year’s tax-day protest.
“That happened because of the passion in America. It didn’t happen because of any one organization,” she said.
Those close to Armey said they weren’t surprised by his involvement and willingness to champion their cause.
Terry Holt, a partner at public relations firm HDMK and a former Armey communications director, said his ex-boss’ alignment with the tea party is rooted in the principles that made the Republican revolution of 1994 a success.
“This role for Armey is perfect,” Holt said. “He’s taken an organization that had a great cause and turned it into an energetic network of grass-roots activists.”
Holt said Armey’s willingness to challenge the Republican establishment was “authentic Dick Armey.”
“He is a true firebrand and he’ll tell it like it is,” Holt said.
Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, said, “Armey is as good as anybody to understand where [activists] are coming from.”
Franc, who also once served as communications director for Armey, added, “He didn’t even own a tuxedo until the late 1990s. He’s very humble how he views himself.”
Americans for Tax Reform Chairman Grover Norquist agreed that Armey’s temperament made him well-suited to help activists who have limited experience in politics.
“He was an effective legislator while always being an extremely principled guy,” Norquist said. He has Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) worldview with former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) ability to move the legislative agenda, he said.
Norquist said Armey’s background in politics and his conservative credentials made him a natural champion of the movement.
“Dick Armey has been a leader of the conservative moment since we came to Congress,” Norquist said. “Because he’s kind of low key and talks low key … people sometimes forget how central he’s been to some of the real steps forward in the movement.”
Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Assistant to the Speaker Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), said: “They are lucky to have Dick Armey. He thinks Medicare is tyranny, supports privatizing Social Security and advocates turning back the clock to the same failed policies that created the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” Thornell added, “He is the perfect spokesman for the Congressional Republican agenda.”
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.