Two former House leaders say it's high time to mend fences

No strangers to political flame-throwing, former House Majority Leaders Dick Armey, a Republican, and Richard Gephardt, a Democrat, now preach the gospel of bipartisanship.

Both became consultants at DLA Piper after their long service in the House. In that role, Armey and Gephardt have been among the featured performers in a one-city, two-show tour of pre- and post-election analysis sponsored by their firm.

The two still feel differently about the outcome last Tuesday, when Democrats swept to majorities in the House and Senate. Armey, for example, began his talk with a heavy sigh.

But they agree that it will be the party that effectuates the best policy by legislating from the center rather than from the base that will return as the majority in 2008.

“Everyone on both sides of the aisle has to do some real deep thinking,” said Armey, who in the previous luncheon allowed something he said he couldn’t admit to when he was in Congress: He and Gephardt are friends.

In that previous luncheon, Armey questioned his party’s congressional leadership for dealing with issues such as gay marriage that were of “questionable validity.”

Keeping the base happy without allowing it to dictate policy will be a key for Democrats, he said.

“How do you manage what may seem to be uncompromising demands of your base?” Armey said. “I’m not sure that either party has done a very good job of it.”

He criticized Republicans, for example, for rejecting a broader immigration bill even though the Bush White House backed it.

“Who in the world would have said … ‘Let’s see what is the fastest growing demographic today and see what we can do to offend them?’”

Exit polling showed Hispanics voted overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats in the recent election, negating gains President Bush had made during his own runs for office.

Armey’s group, Freedom Works, supports the comprehensive immigration reform advocated by the Bush administration.

Gephardt said the test for members after the election is what lessons they take away from it. And lesson No. 1, according to the former House majority leader, is that voters are tired of the “bitterness and the polarization” of American politics.

He said some members, whom he didn’t name, have told him they regretted having run because of the vitriol they were subjected to in negative ads that dominated races across the country.

Gephardt also agreed that immigration would be one of the Democrats’ top priorities, although it doesn’t show up on the short to-do list of Democratic Party leaders as of yet.

Immigration reform should be followed by a minimum-wage hike, and implementation of the 9-11 Commission recommendations, he said.

But he cautioned that his party may find it difficult to manage its liberal base and its more moderate members, whose numbers will grow as a result of the election victories of a number of centrist and conservative Democrats.

That tension could be most readily seen in the direction the party takes on the war in Iraq. “Do not underestimate the difficulty going forward of getting a consensus in Congress and the country about what to do in Iraq,” Gephardt warned.

To Democrats who want to pay back Republicans for what they perceived as unfair treatment, Gephardt cautioned: “I think that is a prescription to lose in two years, not a prescription to win.”

There was some suggestion of lingering partisanship. Asked whether Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made the right choice in publicly declaring her support for Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) in his battle with current Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in the race for House majority leader, Armey joked that he was delighted with the move, presumably because it showed fractures within the Democratic Caucus. Armey called Pelosi’s move “inexplicable” and “ a serious misstep.”

Gephardt said, though, that loyalty was important in politics. But he allowed that “You don’t like to have division when you go into a new Congress.”