For some answers to those questions, CBSNews.com turned to Dick Armey, one of the conservative politicians behind the "Contract With America" and the Republican takeover of Congress over a decade ago. A onetime economics professor in Texas, Armey was elected to the House of Representatives and rose to become House majority leader. Now he's head of FreedomWorks, a free-market advocacy group in Washington, D.C. that has criticized Democratic health care proposals and the cap and trade bill.
As part of our occasional series -- a previous interview was with former John McCain aide Dan Schnur -- I interviewed Armey earlier this month. Following is the transcribed interview.
Q: Who's really leading the Republican Party these days?
I think the Republican Party right now is in search of two things: a clear and united vision of policy for America, and people who will lead that vision. Clearly they've become aware now that the central issue that faces the American people and what will capture their attention is small government and conservativism on fiscal issues, in particular individual liberty, defense of personal rights and freedoms. The center ground is fiscal conservativism. That's the central stake of the big tent.
I think there are people vying and becoming emergent as who can be the most effective voice. My own view is that (Minnesota Governor Tim) Pawlenty is the person standing on the safest ground. He has no major disappointments behind him. He has the chance to create a fresh new public understanding of who he is and what he stands for. Right now you have to put him there.
(Mississippi Governor) Haley Barbour is a person with an extremely solid track record of performance who can stand on that ground comfortably. Right now I would say that there is no consensus leader of the Republican Party but there are a couple of pretty good looking attractive contenders out there.
Q: You said that the central stake should be fiscal conservatism. But the Republican Party ran up trillions in deficits, spent hundreds of billions on TARP and a Wall Street bailout, bailed out GM, created the Department of Homeland Security and No Child Left Behind, and published about 700,000 new pages of federal regulations in eight years. Do Republicans have any credibility about claiming to limit government?
That's exactly the point, and that's why a new fresh face is a very important part of this. You have to have someone to say, "Well, clearly, I'm not like Obama, I'm antithetical to the liberal Democrats in the Obama administration. And by the way, I'm also not like those Republicans you were last most recently disappointed with."
And therefore we get a fresh new start with a real central core of American values, with responsible restraint of big government, decent respect for individual liberty, and efficiency and competence in doing those limited things that the government must do and doing them well. That's why I think Pawlenty is the person standing on the safest possible ground.
Q: So what do the leaders of this Republican Party 2.0 say when asked about George W. Bush and all of the people who worked for him. Do they throw them under the bus, or say these people did the right thing at the time?
No, I think what you do is say the past is the past. We're looking at where America is now and where America's going to go. We understand that we have a proud history in this country with Ronald Reagan, with the contract years. There have been times when we've understood our duty and restraint of big government.
I'm here to recapture those times, recapture them not only against the aggressive antipathy toward those things you see in the current administration but the neglect of these proud values by Republicans in the past. And I don't think you get into names. I think everyone knows what we're talking about.
Q: Ronald Reagan told Reason magazine in 1975 that: "I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism." Does this mean the Ron Paul wing with a more libertarian approach -- limited government, low taxes, bring the troops home -- is offering the best direction for the Republicans?
My favorite quote from von Mises is that government is more than just a necessary evil. [Ed Note: It looks like Armey is referring to this quote from the Austrian economist, which says: "Government is not, as some people like to say, a necessary evil; it is not an evil, but a means, the only means available to make peaceful human coexistence possible. But it is the opposite of liberty."]
The fact is that there are certain essential things that must be done efficiently and effectively by the government. Stay focused on that: national defense, security of the nation is high among the duties of the government. It's one of the few things that's specifically spelled out in the Constitution for the federal government. Pay attention to that in these dangerous times in this dangerous world. But understand that your mission is the safety and security of the United States and not the reform of rest of the world.
Q: Dick Cheney keeps popping up to criticize the president. In contrast, George W. Bush has maintained his silence. Does it help the Republicans for Cheney to have this prominent role? Does it tell us anything about whether Cheney would run for public office in the future?
You know, I really don't quite understand the impact of Dick Cheney's current voice on the party and the party's standing. Nor do I understand or anticipate anything about his possible future political intentions.
But I do think it is nowhere near the central theme. The person who stands up and says, "Look, I've got a clear focus on what are the essential needs of the economy, restoring the performance of the american economy, liberating the investment-consturction-building job creation cycle of the private sector from the oppressions of big government, and maintaining a strong safe and secure nation." If I were going to be Dick Armey the candidate, I would stay focused on me and these issues and remain pretty well silent on all folks around me.
Q: On President Obama for a moment, his poll numbers are slipping to an all-time low. What do you see as his biggest mistake to date?
On a broad-based scale, the current threat is health care but you've got cap and trade is lurking out there in the shadows. You've got mandatory unionization laying out there waiting for its moment.
The American people say, "I get it, the guy's talking as if he really does want to change America. He wants to change America from everything that has made us prosperous and secure to some sort of academic infatuation with things that have been proven to be unworkable in the world."
So while the man had the talent necessary to win the presidency, he's clearly demonstrated that he has neither the understanding nor the appreciation of the fundamental values of this country that have made it the greatest success in the history of the world. By virtue of what I would call his "romantic egalitarianism," he's about ready to lead us off the cliff and we've got to put a stop to it.
Q: New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has written of the tea parties: "They're astroturf events, manufactured by the usual suspects," and named your group as one of the responsible parties. Is your position that the tea parties would have happened with or without FreedomWorks?
There's no doubt about it. The tea parties would have happened with or without FreedomWorks. It's everything but astroturf.
It is all over the country, these things sprang up. Where FreedmoWorks came on the scene with these folks is most of them said, "Let's go have a tea party, let's have a demonstration of our concern, how do you do that?" They found FreedomWorks as the most effective grassroots organization in the country on conservative economic issues, and sought advice from us. Anybody that looks at the tea party movement and thinks of it as astroturf is, as we would say in Texas, nothing but a plain damn fool.
Q: You mentioned primarily economic issues, conservative economic issues. What role will social issues -- gay marriage, abortion, etcetra -- play in the future of the Republican Party?
These issues are always important and they will always be important to the voters in this country. The essential response on that is that which worked for Reagan, that which worked well for the contract years is to understand that our first mission is to defend the public against the encroachments of the state. If in fact the advocates of abortion or gay marriage want to use -- expand -- the power of the state to impose those circumstances on the American people and we defend against that, we will win at the polls with that position.
If, on the other hand, we do as the Republicans did to their detriment a few years ago, try to expand the power of the state in the other direction, we will lose. This is clearly an area where if you're on the defensive side of the ball, you're winning. If you're on the offensive side of the ball, you're losing.
Politicians need to get a lot smarter about how they handle these extremely sensitive and heartfelt issues. And the Republicans quite frankly in the last few years have not been real bright about how they've handled them.
Q: The tea party movement seems to me more like a leave-us-alone movement, an independent phenomenon. Do you see this giving birth to a new political party in the same way that the Republican Party grew out of a fracturing Whig Party?
No, I really don't think so. I think the tea party movement's major contribution will be in pointing the way to the rehabilitation of the Republican Party so that it really becomes the party that is an alternative to the liberal big government Democrat vision.
When the Republican Party says, "Look, we are the choice, not the echo," it will win. The tea party activists are the swing voters, the independent voters, they're Democrats, conservatives, Republicans, evangelicals, libertarians. And basically what they say is: read the Constitution, and keep your oath to defend the Constitution against the unnecessary and illegitimate advances in the size and scope of the government. Just leave us alone because we can do better.
Q: You keep using language like limiting the size of government, fiscal conservatism. You're sounding a lot like Ron Paul. Does this mean the best solution is to go in that direction?
Ron Paul has an enormous following, but the fact of the matter is that he doesn't stand on center ground exclusively and wholly. He sometimes gets out on some of the fringe areas where quite frankly, there's a lot of confusion in a lot of people when he starts talking about gold standards and breaking away with the Fed, undoing the Fed.
Now he may very well be quite comfortable with that. I've read a lot of the literature he reads and I understand that, but it is really not the consolidated center ground on which he stands. While Ron has run for office as a libertarian and as a Republican, he has only won office as a Republican standing on that comfortable middle ground -- where the American people can have a clear comprehension of the points he's making and make a commitment to him.
Q: Would you say the Republican analogue to MoveOn is FreedomWorks?
We're much better than MoveOn because we have integrity and we understand about decent respect for other people and we only deal in things that are honest and truthful. I don't particularly relish the notion of being compared to MoveOn because I think it's an organization that lacks integrity and respect for the American people.
In terms of their ability to raise a lot of Cain, look at what they did. They removed a sitting senator in Connecticut who had been their party's vice presidential candidate. They're very good at that sort of business. But we like to think of ourselves as being more constructive than just harming people we don't like very much.
Q: We haven't talked about Sarah Palin. What do you think it is it about her that drives the left up the wall?
The first thing that drives them nuts about Sarah Palin is that she's authentic. She is who she is, on her own terms. In many respects she's everything that Hillary Clinton pretends to be. She became the governor of the state of Alaska not because she was someone's daughter or sister or wife, but because on her own terms on her own initiative, she became the governor.
She's not wishy-washy. She says exactly what she means and makes it quite clear so there can be no misunderstanding. Clarity is considered by the left to be intellectually diminished as opposed to obfuscation.
Q: On the economy, conservatives have offered biting critiques of what the Obama administration has done. But what happens to your side in 2010 and 2012 if the economy improves to the point where people say: Okay, it's morning in America again?
Obviously if by some miracle of the private sector's resiliency that should happen, it will be an advantage to the Obama folks: "All that we did made this happen."
But the fact is that he still has to deal with a nation that is desperately concerned, scared, and angry over the fact that he wants to take control of their lives, whether it be energy with cap and trade, or health care, or running the automobile industry, or whatever.
My own view is that everybody who holds high office in this country quickly becomes either a pleasant surprise or a bitter disappointment. President Obama has proven to the biggest quickest disappointment that I've ever seen, and you don't recover from that. I don't believe the recovery of the economy, if it should it happen, will be credited to him but will be seen as a credit to the resiliency of the private sector.
Q: Does an ideologically purer Republican Party win in a general election?
I don't think you should talk in terms of ideological purity. You should talk about the more dutiful party. The fact of the matter is that every person who takes office in this country swears an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. It's our guiding light. It's made this country the greatest success in the history of the world on every basis you can measure the success of a nation.
All we're saying is be dutiful. Read the dictionary. If you don't get it, if you don't understand it, we'll buy you a dictionary. And the Constitution is clear and precise. We want you to do your duty. That's not ideology. We're just saying, "Look, this instrument, this philosophy, this structure that was created by those brave geniuses all those years ago gave the world the greatest success in the history of the world." All we're saying is have the decency and respect to stand up by it.
That's not ideology. That's just practical reality. Do what works. Don't go off on some fantasy romantic mission you got from some obscure textbook.
Q: You're saying the Constitution is clear and precise. But if you take that to its logical conclusion, there's nothing in the Constitution that explicitly authorizes the Commerce Department, the Education Department, the Federal Trade Commission, or for that matter Medicare or Social Security. Would you get rid of all of those agencies?
The practical guy says, "I understand where the water is under the bridge so let's make the best of it." If we can't restore America to the full dimensions of liberty, let's at least clear up the transgressions of the institutions that are there.
Medicare does not have to be a bullying pulpit where you force everyone to be in whether they want to be or not and impose punitive sanctions on people who want to simply say, "No, I don't need it, I don't want it." Let me decline to enroll. You've got a government program that's $30 trillion dollars in arrears. I just want to say no. I don't want to have the government to impose punitive sanctions on me for my right to do so. You can at least repair the excesses and abuses of the existing programs
Q: Last question: How do you see your own role inside the Republican Party?
I hope to work with the real activists across the country and maintain a continuous presence of insisting on responsible restraint of big government.
Our prayer for America is that we have a government that has the ability to know the goodness of the American people and the decency to respect it. We don't ask for much. We just ask for the government to be dutiful and not self-indulgent.
Declan McCullagh is a senior correspondent for CBSNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com and can be followed on Twitter as declanm. You can bookmark Declan's Taking Liberties site here, or subscribe to the RSS feed. Before becoming a CBS employee, Declan was the chief political correspondent for CNET, a reporter for Time, and Washington bureau chief for Wired.