WASHINGTON - This is a tale of two politicians. He's a conservative on the way out. She's a liberal on the way up.
In some ways, this odd couple shows how Congress changes but how politics at its core never really changes.
Rep. Dick Armey (R., Texas) is a burly, blustery, perpetually tanned, white-maned, curmudgeonly conservative. An economics professor with a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma who's been on Capitol Hill for 18 years, he's been the GOP leader in the House, under Speaker Dennis Hastert (R., Ill).
Even though Mr. Armey got 72 percent of the vote in his district two years ago, he's retiring. The father of five says he's sick and tired of politics and wants to devote himself to “big ideas.”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) is a petite, amiable, liberal who has been in Congress for 16 years and usually wins re-election with as much as 85 percent of the vote. She is the new leader of House Democrats, replacing Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. He wants to run for president in 2004. Ms. Pelosi, a mother of five, is the first woman to lead a party in either the House or the Senate.
A San Francisco liberal - with all the connotations that conveys - she loves politics. An adept fund-raiser and tireless campaigner, she doled out $1 million to House colleagues this election and raised millions more by appearing at rallies.
This is how outgoing Armey described rising star Pelosi on the day she won election among her House colleagues as their leader: “Nancy Pelosi is discounted because she's a beautiful woman. I'd hate to go through life as a beautiful woman.”
Mr. Armey, 62, said that to a group of reporters - many of whom were women. And yet Mr. Armey stressed that he likes Ms. Pelosi, also 62, because “you can deal with” her and because she is “somebody just as reliable when you're against her as when you're for her.”
Although Ms. Pelosi once referred to Mr. Armey as a “junkyard dog” in need of housebreaking, she has admitted respect for him. She said she found him easier to deal with than many Republicans because “you know where he is on the issues, and he's true to his program” and “doesn't mince words.” She said it was possible to have an all-out fight with him on issues and then get into a friendly conversation about football.
Mr. Armey's big crusade will still be imposition of a flat tax, meaning everybody would pay the same rate -17 percent. He thinks it would be fair, would avoid the “abominable” pitfalls of the current tax code and would strike away the cobwebs of “redistribution” of income and the “social engineering” he argues Democrats have imposed. Not a rich man, he's going forth into academia and think tanks to push his uphill battle.
Ms. Pelosi, a rich woman, thinks the flat tax is a terrible idea and vows that her goal is the “safety and soundness of the American people” -meaning physical security in a world of terrorism and economic security in uncertain times. That means no permanent tax cut.
Mr. Armey is an ardent opponent of abortion, who says he became a born-again Presbyterian in 1995. Since then, he is a “better person,” having shed a reputation for meanness, he insists, and the “insecurities” that prompted it. Ms. Pelosi, a Catholic, is an ardent defender of abortion rights.
Will she lead from the far left as Mr. Armey led from the far right? And will the new House GOP leader - Rep. Tom DeLay, another outspoken Texan - remain as fiercely partisan as he was as the No. 3 leader? Will President Bush go back to preaching from the bible of cooperation now that the election is over - or push his own agenda at all costs? If it sounds like a soap opera, it is.
Ms. Pelosi pledges to lead from the middle but warns about “extreme policies” of the Republicans, warning they “pretend they share our values and then legislate against” them.
Mr. DeLay, once the master of partisan vitriol and nicknamed “The Hammer,” quoted John F. Kennedy in his acceptance speech. “I'll work hard to bring Republicans and willing Democrats together to get things done for the American people,” he said. Note the emphasis on “willing.”
Maybe The Hammer and the Beautiful Woman will be able to talk football. But you'd probably be on target if you were overheard muttering to yourself, “Back to the same old, same old.”