Dick Armey's announcement that he will retire from Congress at the end of 2002 and leave his position as majority leader–the number-two post in the Republican-controlled House–provides an occasion to recall that Armey demonstrated how easy it is to get away with lying in Washington. For years, Armey, whose opposition to the minimum wage is nearly a religious obsession, used to reminisce publicly about a retarded janitor named Charlie who cleaned the building where Armey worked when he chaired the economics department at North Texas State University. One day Charlie disappeared. Months later, Armey would say, he learned that Charlie had been laid off because the school could not afford to keep him after Congress passed a minimum-wage hike, and poor Charlie ended up on welfare. Here was solid proof, Armey claimed repeatedly, that the minimum wage hurts workers. But in 1995, an enterprising Washington Post reporter, David Maraniss, interviewed former Armey colleagues at the school who said there had been no such person as Charlie; the chancellor of the school explained that janitors are state employees exempt from federal minimum-wage laws. Armey, though, was unbowed and huffed that "people at the university didn't get it."
The departure of Armey, a rock-hard conservative, presents the House Republicans with a chance to show they're more than a bunch of right-wing ideologues. But it seems that most of them are not uncomfortable with that image. Armey fought fiercely for every corporate tax cut imaginable. He wanted to criminalize abortion, he urged amending the Constitution to permit school prayer, he advocated phasing out Social Security and repealing the ban on assault weapons. He called Representative Barney Frank "Barney Fag." In the past year, he tugged George W. Bush to the right during several legislative face-offs. Yet he's a pussycat–a "down-home guy," says columnist David Broder–compared with his likely replacement, House majority whip Tom DeLay.
Democrats are drooling over the prospect that the Republicans will elevate DeLay, who as of this writing has fended off challengers for the spot. "Please, please, please," begs one House Democrat. A retired conservative Democratic Congressman notes, "It's hard to believe that most House Republicans think it helps them to be represented by DeLay. The way to explain this is, it's money and influence at work. DeLay controls a lot of money for Republicans, and if you're not with him, he's against you."
Three years have passed since the Democrats lost their best foil–Newt Gingrich–and they've been hankering for a GOPer to demonize. George W. Bush, high in the polls, doesn't offer much of a target, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert is too low-profile. For this type of personality politics to work, a party needs an over-the-top foe who can provoke a visceral reaction and whose name can be made shorthand for larger forces. (These days, conservatives/Republicans think they can score by depicting Senate majority leader Tom Daschle as a bogeyman.) DeLay, whose public manner is as sharp-edged as his conservative ideology, is not an effective pitchman to nonbelievers. His heavyhanded, extortionlike tactics–which include pressuring corporate lobbyists to donate more to Republicans in order to gain access to legislation-drafting sessions–can be useful in those instances when Democrats argue that Republicans serve the corporate class rather than working families. (Bush made this portion of the Democrats' job easier by picking former Montana Governor Marc Racicot to replace former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore as head of the Republican Party. Racicot is now a business lobbyist–the Recording Industry Association of America, the American Forest and Paper Association and the National Electric Reliability Coordinating Council–but too bad, Dems, he has an agreeable, media-friendly temperament.)
It's not that Republicans are blind to DeLay's PR liabilities. Representative Curt Weldon, a GOP hawk, says, "We need someone who can go on national TV and present a good, positive image of the Republican Party and not a meanspirited image." That won't come from a man who enjoys the nickname The Hammer. (The rule in the House appears to be: Don't try to nail The Hammer unless you can sure as hell crush him.) Democrats will be tempted to make DeLay the issue. With his above-average attachment to slippery fundraising, iron-fisted politics and contribution favoritism, he might afford them an opening here or there. But DeLay is more than a vengeful and unattractive pol. He's been a hard-working, often successful legislator who knows how to win the close ones for his gang. With this move, the Democrats' most fierce and effective foe will become more powerful–and a step closer to being Speaker.
Focusing on DeLay as they bid for control of the House is not a surefire strategy for Democrats. Blasting Gingrich did not gain them the majority, and there's no precedent for winning back the House by attacking the second in command. Should DeLay succeed in climbing a rung on the leadership ladder–a development that would not dramatically alter the workings of the conservative-dominated GOP caucus–he might, for Democrats, provide more distraction than ammunition.