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The Future of Conservatism: an Interview with Mickey Edwards

May 29, 2008

Mickey Edwards is a lecturer in public and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and the vice president of the Aspen Institute. Before Princeton he taught at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he was the John Quincy Adams Lecturer in Legislative Practice. Prior to his teaching career, Mr. Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years as the Representative for Oklahoma’s 5th District. He was a member of the House Republican Leadership, a member of the Appropriations and Budget Committees, and the ranking member of the House subcommittee on foreign operations. A leading conservative, Mr. Edwards was also one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation and national chairman of the American Conservative Union. Mr. Edwards has been a weekly political commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and a weekly opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers. Mr. Edwards’ primary interest is in the field of constitutional studies. In his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, Mickey Edwards offers a frank and provocative critique of George W. Bush’s two terms in office. Troubled by the concentration of power in the hands of the Executive that has taken place under the current administration, Mr. Edwards launches an attack on today’s GOP for having abandoned its original mission of defending the Constitution and protecting the individual rights of the people. Finally, Mickey Edwards lays down the principles that are at the roots of American conservatism in an attempt to revive the movement from the ground up.

reclaimingconservatismMr. Edwards spoke with Washington Prism about the crisis of Conservatism, the Bush Administration, the future of the Republican Party and the 2008 presidential campaign.

Valentina Pasquali (VP): When and why did you originally start thinking about writing this book?

Mickey Edwards (ME): There were many triggers overtime. I decided to write the book when I reached the breaking point, when there were so many things that had got me so upset about the direction of the Republican Party that I couldn’t just privately grumble about it anymore, I needed to do something about it. In 2004 I didn’t even vote for George W. Bush, even though I had been a foreign policy advisor to his campaign in 2000. But I still wasn’t being very publicly outspoken, only my family knew that I had not voted for him. As things began to pile up, more and more things that really bothered me, I really felt like I had to say something about it.

VP: How much do you think the conservative message still resonate with the American public at large? Do you think the take-over of the Republican Party by movements different from Conservatism was the result of intra-party power struggles, or it also reflected changes of ideology occurring at the level of public opinion?

ME: I think the views that were predominant in the party, and that were primarily the views of Ronald Reagan, are still very popular. But that’s not what the current Republican Party is presenting, what it stands for. But I don’t think what the public wants has changed, so I don’t think that the Party has changed in response to a public demand. I think what happened was that various narrower interests began to take over the party. It wasn’t a matter of a change in the feelings of grass-root people, registered Republicans, but of the people in the political class, those who were running for office, for example the religious right, to some extent the Neo-conservatives. I don’t think the great bulk of the American people, or even the bulk of the Republicans agree with that. But in a political context, a small political group can have a lot of influence. Because they turn out to vote in the primaries, and, in America, it’s not who the most people are for, but who the most people who go vote are for. To some extent the rise of the religious right and the neo-con came about because America stopped participating in elections, especially in primary elections.

I just visited my home district in Oklahoma and I was worried about people’s reaction to what I wrote. But I found overwhelming support for those ideas. I think there’s an important fault line; on one side it’s the people who worked in the Reagan Administration and supported the Reagan Campaign, and of course, before then, those that were a part of the Goldwater and Nixon times. These people very strongly agree with me. Then there are the people who came after Reagan, which is when the religious right and the neo-con actually reached their greatest strength; they hate what I’m saying. They are the tail wagging the dog.

VP: How much of the base of the Republican Party is comprised by the so-called religious right?

ME: Most of the numbers I’ve seen are in the range of 20-30%. I remember one poll from the Florida primary, which is considered to be a pretty hard-core conservative state, where less than 30% of the Republicans said that they considered themselves very conservative. And in today’s language very conservative means either religious right, or strong supporter of the Bush’s foreign policy. It was certainly less than a third of the Republican voters and in terms of the whole electorate a very small proportion. However, if a group represents the 25%-30% but it is made of people who work in the elections and show up to campaign, if they make phone calls and distribute literature, then they have an influence way beyond their number.

I think the better question, but I don’t know the answer, would be what percentage of the Republicans who actively participate in somebody’s congressional campaign, for example, are a part of the religious right or are neo-con. I haven’t seen any number but it’s has to be way higher than 30%, probably over 50%.

VP: What do you think Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan’s opinion would be of present-day Conservatives and the current Administration?

ME: I’ve said several times that if Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton had done the things that this President is doing, real conservatives would have marched on Washington to protest and I think Barry Goldwater would be leading that march. And I think he’d be leading it against this President too. All of that Goldwater stood for was opposed to this concentration of federal power, to presidents acting like kings, who believe that a President is above the law. Our complaint about government was that it was intruding in the freedom of the people. Well, Lyndon Johnson never intruded on the freedom of the American people the way George Bush does. So I think Goldwater would be just sick. In fact, Barry Goldwater Jr., his son, has been extremely outspoken about this President and how bad he is.

VP: What approach do you think a truly conservative President would take toward Iran and how do you evaluate George W. Bush’s stance toward Teheran?

So far George Bush is not doing anything about Iran except insisting that Iranians pose a threat to us. He worries about their nuclear ambitions; he is concerned about whether they are helping the terrorists in Iraq fighting American soldiers. I think any American president would have exactly the same position. But I think Ronald Reagan, for example, would not have a problem sitting down with the Iranian President. There would be a lot of groundwork laid first; we would have to see whether there was something we could talk about. But he sat down with the Soviet leaders when they had missiles aimed at the United States, and they had not renounced Khrushchev’s statement that they were going to bury us, when they still had the Eastern part of Europe locked up. Reagan went to talk to them. I don’t think he would say never ever talk to them. But neither Reagan nor Goldwater would just let the Iranians off, to continue with nuclear weapons or to do harm to American soldiers in Iran. On Iran, I think Bush’s policies are not very different from what any American president would do.

VP: Considering what we have been saying thus fur, how did George W. Bush win a second term?

ME: For two reasons: First, most of what he did, and is now disliked for, became much more visible in his second term. Remember that the elections for his second term came only about a year after we had gone into Iraq. There still wasn’t full information available about the fact that maybe we had been misled. I remember, in 2004, there were people still insisting that the weapons of mass destruction had to be there, but that we just had not found them yet. Secondly, Republicans don’t win so much as Democrats lose. The Democrats continued to put forth candidates who just don’t resonate with the American people. To some extent George W. Bush won and to some extent John Kerry lost. Even in 2000, when Gore won more of the popular vote, most surveys showed that the people didn’t like him. Maybe they agreed with his policies, but they didn’t really like him and when you have this kind of a society that is so driven by the media, whether or not you like someone versus just reading about his/her policies makes a huge different.

VP: What is your opinion of John McCain? Where do you think he would stand in relation to Conservatism if he was to become the new President?

ME: There’s wishful thinking here, but I want to believe that the real John McCain is the one who ran in 2000, the one who is now publicly distancing himself from George Bush, on the way to handle foreign policy, on the attitude toward war, the environment. I hope that that is the real John McCain. From time to time, he starts worrying about the hard-core conservatives, 30% is enough that you don’t want to lose them, even though they are a minority, and so he says things that bother me, that are too much like Bush. But I think the real John McCain is more like what I’ve been talking about a not a lot like George W. Bush. I hope that, if he were President, and given his age there are pretty good chances that he would choose not to run for a second term, that that would free him up to be the maverick that a lot of us think he really is.

VP: Who are, in today’s GOP, the political personalities that you think still embody American Conservatism and that should lead the reclamation of the movement that you advocate for?

ME: I don’t know. At the national level, those who are in Congress already, it’s hard to know which one believes what because they have so automatically rallied behind the President and supported the President, with almost everything he wants to do, that you don’t know what they would really do on their own. Ron Paul has some of the things that we talked about, but he’s also off in other directions especially on monetary issues, and he’s too old to be leading any kind of reclaiming of the party. I don’t see one right now. I see some people but they are people who are in state legislatures or who are holding some state office. I don’t see any on the federal level. I see people at the federal level who receive a lot of attention, but I don’t know enough where they really stand on issues. So far they’ve been casting outrageous votes supporting the President. I’m guessing this kind of new movement will have to come from people from the states that we don’t know about yet.

VP: Do you think these individuals could be hiding among those names that are being thrown around as potential running mates for McCain?

There are people like Bobby Jindal in Luisiana, Charlie Crist in Florida, Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota. There are a number being considered, plus people like Romney, who is a former governor. None of them really fits the same model. I’ve always liked Bobby Jindal, but when he ran for Governor he ran on a pretty hard-core conservative program. Mike Huckabee (Governor of Arkansas) remains a possibility. I don’t know if I see any of them in that light. Maybe Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota and Charlie Crist in Florida; I’d say those are probably the two closest.

But way too much attention has been paid to this. There is always an assumption now that the vice-president will be like Dick Cheney, real powerful input. But Cheney is very unusual; the history of the United States has been very different from that, with the vice-president that has virtually no influence. When Harry Truman became President, he wasn’t even aware that we had an atomic bomb. That was much more typical, that the vice-president is not a decision-maker. Charlie Crist, who’s very popular in Florida, could cause a few additional people in Florida to vote Republican and that could help carry Florida. So the choice of the vice-president does that. Like Lyndon Johnson helped carry Texas. But they are not important because they have any real impact on policies.

VP: Does the “reclamation of Conservatism” necessarily need to take place within the ranks of the Republican Party?

ME: If a democrat adopted those policies I’d be for a democrat. We thought we had taken over the Republican Party, instead the Republican Party took us over, and party dominance became the greatest goal. Well that’s not my goal; my goal is protecting the Constitution, a government that follows our Constitution. I care about America more than I care about the Republican Party. Bill Clinton, when he was President, said that it would be the end of welfare as we knew it, that he wouldn’t be the old fashion left wing liberal democrat anymore. And I said then, “don’t attack him, just claim victory.”

VP: What do you think instead of this year’s Democratic candidates?

ME: First of all I don’t know if there still are candidates in the plural. In any case, I think Hillary Clinton would make a decent President. I think she’s has sound judgment in foreign policy. There were a lot of things wrong with her husband but his policies weren’t all that bad. Unfortunately she’s run a terrible campaign. In the early stages she let Obama get ahead because she did a really poor job with grass-root organizing. She thought that because she was who she was, she could just cruise through. And instead Obama had organizers who killed her in the caucuses.

As far as Barack Obama; in one way I’m worried about him, because he does seem very naïve and inexperienced, and that’s a dangerous thing in foreign policy. I really like his approach to politics, his talking about getting beyond party divisions. I don’t know how real this is, because in his policies, he seems a pretty traditional liberal democrat, they are not middle-ground policies. And I also hope that we are not just being taken in by somebody who’s simply a really good public speaker. I wish I knew if that was real or smoke and mirrors. If he’d been in office for 10 years and he was talking this way, you could look back on his record and see if that’s the real him. But now we have no way of knowing. You either take his word or you worry that is all air.

VP: In conclusion, do you feel optimistic about the possibility of reclaiming Conservatism?

No. And I don’t feel optimistic because so few Americans really understand what our system is like. If you walk down the street and ask someone; “who’s the head of Government?” they won’t know. They’ll say; “it’s the President.” But he is not. “Who’s in charge of foreign policy?” “The President,” well, he is not. “Who’s supposed to decide on whether you go to war, or what you do with prisoners of war?” “The President,” well, he is not. We have been so unchallenged for over two hundred years that people have gotten lazy in remembering why our system of government is what it is. It is decentralized, with the powers being all separated. The thing that makes America different is that we’ve left the power in the hands of people through their representatives. That’s different from almost any country in the world and that what scares me today. Until people can’t understand what the President should be and what the job of Congress should be I don’t see how things can change.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism – Persian Edition

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