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GOP voice from the past still loud in healthcare fight

When President Obama delivered this week’s big healthcare speech, Dick Armey watched in his apartment near Capitol Hill. Or, rather, he watched until he “couldn’t take it anymore” and went off to work on his wife’s balky computer.

It’s no surprise that Armey tuned out a president he holds in less than high regard. What voter mandate? “He got lucky,” the former Republican House leader said. “Anybody with the Democratic nomination was going to win.”

Nothing Obama said was going to sway him. “He has no understanding nor appreciation for the way a private economy works,” said Armey, a free-marketer to set Adam Smith’s heart aflutter.

Today, Armey will help lead an angry invasion of the nation’s capital: a collection of “tea party” protesters and anti-Obama picketers marching from the White House to Capitol Hill to oppose what they see as the perilous, ravenous, unchecked growth of Big Government, embodied in the president’s expansive proposal to overhaul the healthcare system.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise is that so many people still care what Armey says and does, half a dozen years after he departed Congress, leaving behind, as National Journal magazine put it, “Plenty of Dry Eyes in the House.”

Healthcare reform has hit the rawest of conservative nerves, and if Obama’s effort fails, Armey will happily take credit, as he does for defeating President Clinton’s overhaul attempt 16 years ago. The main organizer of today’s march is FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group led by Armey that was responsible for much of the venting at town halls last month.

“If I hadn’t stood up, Obamacare would be a train running right through this country right now,” Armey said as he ate a cholesterol-stuffed omelet at his favorite Dallas-area coffee shop before flying to Washington.

That may overstate things, just as many say Armey exaggerates his role in Clinton’s setback. Now, as then, plenty of forces are complicating things for the president, including, crucially, some of Obama’s fellow Democrats.

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Still, Armey has emerged as one of Obama’s most effective critics, standing athwart his far-reaching agenda with a megaphone bellowing: Stop!

“It’s absolutely clear that he’s had some impact,” said Norman Ornstein, a longtime Congress watcher at the American Enterprise Institute. “Much more than he did 16 years ago.”

At that time, Armey was a member of the restive GOP House minority, a cohort of the confrontational Newt Gingrich, which may explain why he doesn’t seem to care what people say or think about him. “I don’t like confrontation,” he said, a comment sure to raise eyebrows. “But somebody has to be the first guy to stand up.”

Armey’s career is strewn with acerbic remarks: suggesting then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was a Marxist, telling congressional Democrats during a Clinton-era debate: “Your president is just not that important to us.” He insists to this day a reference to Barney Frank, the gay Massachusetts congressman, as “Barney Fag” was a mere slip.

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Given all of that, many Democrats were glad to see Armey retire at the end of 2003. His alleged coup attempt against then-Speaker Gingrich -- something Armey adamantly denies -- also led some Republicans to bid him a less than fond farewell, although lawmakers of both parties did vote to name a conference room after Armey. (He remembers those who abstained.)

He says he has mellowed over the last decade or so, a result of his deepened religious faith, though he allows that he slips. “When I told that woman I didn’t want to listen to her prattle, that was way out of line,” Armey said of a January TV appearance in which he lashed out at Joan Walsh, editor in chief of Salon.com. “I understand why I was frustrated. But that was wrong.”

There is no stinting, however, in his criticism of politicians of all stripes, whom he likened, during a nearly three-hour conversation, to crooks, juvenile delinquents and the mentally impaired.

This requires a certain amount of denial; Armey is himself a politician, and a very successful one.

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An economist who has a doctorate, he considers himself a scholar and has that air -- long disquisitions, little sufferance of dissent -- that is slightly leavened by his frequent reference to country-western songs and old movies. (Armey is Shane, the reluctant barroom brawler; Obama violates the “Dirty Harry principle. A man’s got to know his limitations.”)

Born in tiny Cando (pronounced can-do), N.D., he was the first of his large family to attend college. He settled in Texas to teach economics. He quit North Texas State University -- blasting the song “Take This Job and Shove It,” according to one recycled anecdote -- and ran for Congress in 1984 because, he said with typical deprecation, he wasn’t qualified for anything else.

He was elected as part of the Reagan landslide and represented a wealthy slice of Dallas-Fort Worth for 18 years, eventually rising to majority leader when Republicans won control of Congress. While Gingrich thought big thoughts, Armey oversaw day-to-day operations, proving a far more effective lawmaker than his provocative statements and disdain for politicians might suggest.

Despite his fierce opposition to Clinton’s healthcare plan -- Armey produced a chart depicting a hopelessly complicated scheme that did Rube Goldberg proud -- he worked with the administration to pass welfare reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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“I’ve got no personal animus toward him,” said Paul Begala, a top Clinton advisor. Although he disagrees with Armey’s thinking, Begala credits him with grounding his opposition in economic theory, rather than “crazy, deranged myths like pulling the plug on Grandma.”

Like many who disparage Washington, Armey, 69, has nevertheless stayed, dividing his time between the capital and a small ranch north of Dallas. He is frank enough to admit cashing in. He prefers Texas; the problem was “my market value . . . was next to nothing.” In Washington, Armey has made “a darned handsome pile of dough” using his influence for the benefit of assorted industries and foreign governments.

He recently lost out on several million dollars, by his reckoning, when he left the law firm DLA Piper; in one of those only-in-Washington situations, the firm’s drug company clients were unhappy over Armey’s association with FreedomWorks. (Sixteen years ago, those same companies worked alongside Armey to derail Clinton’s healthcare plan.)

Without job constraints -- “I’m looking for options to replace the lost income” -- Armey has filled his days with campaign-style appearances, radio interviews and stops on the network news and cable TV circuit.

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He promotes his alternative to the Obama plan: tort reform, to end the costly practice of “defensive medicine”; tax breaks so people can pay for their own coverage; and deregulation that spurs competition by letting insurance companies operate across state lines. He continues to inveigh against Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other “power-grabbing liberals” whose legislation, he insists, would bankrupt future generations “and make the country worse off.”

Earlier this week, he attended a warm-up rally for today’s march, which organizers hope will draw tens of thousands. Leaving the Washington Armory, the former majority leader was stopped by Roger Wood, 57, a print shop owner from Kansas, who thanked Armey for his work in Congress and lamented his departure.

“I haven’t left,” Armey said, as he strode to a chauffeured car for the short ride to Capitol Hill and an appearance with GOP House leaders. “I’m still hanging around.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

Kristina Sherry contributed to this report.


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