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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The political conventions are all about getting your vote and convincing you the other party is responsible for some of our country's greatest problems. But it's the party system itself and the ongoing battle between Democrats and Republicans that is at the heart of our political mess, according to my guest, Mickey Edwards.

In his new book, "The Parties Versus the People," he writes that party leaders control important committee assignments in Congress, control legislative priorities, provide or withhold money for re-election campaigns, and mete out rewards and punishments to legislators, creating a climate that creates extreme partisanship and makes it difficult for legislators to vote their conscience.

Edwards is a former legislator himself. He was elected as a Republican congressman from Oklahoma City in 1976 and served 16 years. But now he works in pursuit of bipartisanship as a co-founder of No Labels and The Aspen Institute.

Mickey Edwards, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Just give us an overview of why you think political parties are the cancer that's ruining politics in America.

MICKEY EDWARDS: What I've seen, Terry, recently is that the parties have become so dominant in determining how individual members of Congress vote that it doesn't really matter what the issue is, it doesn't matter whether you're talking about a stimulus plan, a budget, confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. On almost every major issue now, all the Democrats are on one side, all the Republicans are on the other side, and it's obvious that they're not really analyzing the issue in terms of what information they've been able to get, what their own analysis is, but where does my party stand, because my goal here is to be true to my party, to defeat the other party, and there is no way that you can actually manage a government of 300 million people with people in Congress, or in state legislatures as well, who are unable to - and unwilling to really look at the issues in front of them, figure out what needs to be done, and take the oath of office seriously.

GROSS: Let's look at some of the powers that party leaders have in Congress. Party leaders get to choose committee chairs. What's the significance of that?

EDWARDS: The way that Congress works is that almost every major issue comes first through the committee structure. And the people who run the committees are able to decide who we're going to bring forward as witnesses, who we're going to hear from to make the record, whether or not we're even going to let a bill be considered in the committee in order to move it forward to get to the House floor.

And I've been there. I've been in the room. I've watched when you are discussing whether or not A or B ought to be on Ways and Means or Appropriations or the Labor Committee. And somebody will say no, we're not going to put that person on that committee because whatever his or her constituency or personal views or expertise, that person's not going to stick to the party line on the issues that are part of our platform, that are part of our agenda. So that's part of it.

But you sit on these committee staffs, where you're dealing at the first instance with every kind of a major issue and you're sitting there with staff that is either Republican staff or Democrat staff, rather than having, as some states do, and a lot of countries do, nonpartisan staff.

You're operating under the direction of whoever happens to be speaker of the House, who is - who sees his or her view as to be a partisan leader rather than the manager of the process, so that you have - it doesn't matter whether you have a country that is in recession or that is in the middle of wars. You'll have a Republican leader like Mitch McConnell say that my job is to defeat Barack Obama. You'll have a Democratic leader like Nancy Pelosi say to the president, well, we won the election, we'll write the bills, when he was trying to act in a more bipartisan way.

GROSS: How do you think committee chairs are appointed? What do you think the party leaders look for before making a decision?

EDWARDS: The best example that I saw when I was there is that when Newt Gingrich became the speaker, and this has been a pattern, to concentrate power as much as possible in the hands of a speaker who is looking for somebody who would be a champion of the party line.

And so it became common to pick somebody for a committee chairmanship not based on years of experience, expertise in a particular issue, but whether or not they were going to be sufficiently strong advocates for the party point of view rather than who is going to try to manage the process in order to allow the issues to be brought forward, the best witnesses and experts to testify, and allow the members to make up their own minds.

GROSS: Well, you credit Newt Gingrich with creating other, new ways to wield party power and keep lawmakers in line. What are you thinking of?

EDWARDS: What I think, Terry, is that the word credit is not the right word because, you know, I'm very critical of Newt.

GROSS: Right.

EDWARDS: Newt Gingrich actually did a lot to change the nature of the Congress in making it more - there had always been partisanship, but nonstop partisanship, partisan on every issue, bringing issues to the floor that had no chance of passage but only to embarrass members or to put them at odds either with their party leadership or with the folks back home, requiring - he started the process of requiring individual members to raise what's now $300,000 a year besides their own election campaigns just to knock off the opponent.

So Newt kind of began this process of you look at somebody on the other side not as a fellow member of Congress but as an enemy to be vanquished.

GROSS: You write that Newt Gingrich required members of the Appropriations Committee to sign a written pledge that they would heed the Republican leadership's recommendations for spending reductions.

EDWARDS: Well, yeah, and it was not only that, Terry, but there were actually in Congress some very competent people - Jimmy Quillen from Tennessee was one, who was the ranking member of the Rules Committee; Carlos Moorhead from California, also ranking member of committee - who were bypassed for chairmanships solely because they were not considered aggressive enough, and not aggressive enough in trying to get a policy passed but to stick with the party platform against - you know, against whatever their own mindset told them or whatever the information told them.

They could not be counted on to be true blue - you know, not about being true blue to the country, but they can't be counted on to be true blue to the party.

GROSS: And you write that Gingrich's reforms when he was the House speaker were really more like purges.

EDWARDS: Well, they were like purges. He purged, you know, Jimmy Quillen and Carlos Moorhead, but he purged other people as well. It was we're the party, this is about party, it's nonstop about party, our party against their party, and if you want to be a player - you know, this happened to Marge Roukema in New Jersey, it happened to other people - if you didn't give - if somebody else gave more money to the party than you did, then you're not going to get the position.

If somebody else has done more to advance the party, rather than a piece of legislation, than you did, you're not going to get the position, because it's all about party.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mickey Edwards. He's the author of the new book "The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans." You described some of Newt Gingrich's reforms when he was House speaker as actually being purges and, you know, ways to just, like, control Republican votes. How much of the changes he put into place are still there? And do you think things have gotten even more in favor of party leaders controlling the vote?

EDWARDS: Well, my concern is not so much party leaders. I hope people are willing to say I'm not going to follow the leader. You know, the greater concern here is not party leader but party. And let me give you an example of what I mean, Terry.

You get people in Congress, both sides, who are committed to sticking with a particular ideology or with their team and unwilling to compromise. Well, how does that happen? It happens because the incentive system works, and what we've created is a system in which in order to get elected, you have to first make your way through a party primary dominated by the people who are the most ideological, the most partisan, and you're not really concerned about your election to appeal to the broad range of voters in your state or in your congressional district but to those who are going to vote in the primary.

So that you had this example, and just a couple of quick examples, but in Delaware, when Christine O'Donnell was running against Mike Castle, Mike Castle was one of the most popular people in the state, he had been governor, he'd been a long-term congressman. The people of the state liked him a lot, but in that state of a million people, only 30,000 voted in the primary. He lost the primary to those 30,000, and therefore the rest of the million people didn't have him as one of their options.

So that's how you run into situations like Todd Akin in Missouri, who made it through a narrow partisan primary and ends up as the nominee who was on a path to maybe get elected to the U.S. Senate. Or Utah, with three million people, and 3,500 of them show up at a convention. They don't vote for the incumbent senator, Robert Bennett, he can't be on the ballot anymore.

Terry, that's the problem. We're allowing these clubs, the narrow subsets of the population, to dictate to the general public when they go to the polls in November about who their choices can be.

GROSS: So you're saying in part that primary voting tends to lean more toward extremes than the actual election. Why is that?

EDWARDS: Well, yeah, sure. In Indiana, in order for Mourdock to beat Dick Luger, you know, what he did was say I'm not going to go to Washington to compromise. I don't believe in compromise. Well, you know, as I've said, 300 million of us, compromise is the way you have to eventually - that's what Ronald Reagan did. You have to move the country forward.

He believed in compromising when it was necessary, and so, you know, Washington State in 2006 said we're not going to put up with this anymore. And they voted to do away with these party - closed party primaries. California in 2010 voted to do away with party primaries and say let's give the voters all the choices. Let all the candidates run on one ballot, maybe two Republicans, three Democrats, Green, Libertarian, whatever, and let all the voters choose.

And then you end up with people in Congress, in the House, in the Senate, who are representative of the people, not representatives of small subsets of the people.

GROSS: So does everybody get to choose one Democrat and one Republican? Like how does that work?

EDWARDS: No, no, no. I mean, what you do, you have a runoff between the top two. If you have everybody running on the same ballot, and nobody gets over 50 percent, you have a runoff. It's basically a general election, but it's a two-tiered general election. The first one, everybody's on the ballot, the second one, you have a runoff between the top two.

It could be two Republicans against each other. That's happened in Louisiana. It could be two Democrats running against each other. It's happening now in a district in California. It could be any number of people. What matters is the people themselves will have made the choice of who they like best.

Can I tell you a personal story?

GROSS: Sure, please.

EDWARDS: I'm from a city, I'm from Oklahoma City, a pretty good-sized city, and I'm very much an urban guy. I was the first Republican elected from my congressional district since 1928, and my district was three-fourths Democrats. And so when I won as a Republican, it drove the Democrats crazy. And by the way, when I say this, I'll just tell you, Republicans are just as bad about this as Democrats are.

Because they couldn't beat me, the legislature decided to redraw my congressional district from Oklahoma City instead all the way up to the Kansas border, halfway across to the Arkansas border, a big upside-down L, and Mickey Edwards, the city guy, was now representing wheat farmers, cattle ranchers, small-town merchants.

And I tried really hard, but I could not be an articulate advocate of their concerns.

GROSS: Because you didn't understand those - you were an urban guy, and they were farmers, and...

EDWARDS: They were farmers and ranchers, and they had different kinds of concerns economically, different ways of looking at things. But one of the things that happens when you have a situation like that is that you end up - you go against maybe the most important single principle in the Constitution, and that is a provision in the Constitution that every single U.S. senator and U.S. representative must be an actual inhabitant of the state from which they're elected, not like in Britain where you can represent Manchester and not even be able to find it on a map.

The idea was you would know your constituents, you would know their concerns and their interests, and they would know you, because you lived there. And this, allowing parties to draw congressional districts for their own partisan advantage completely undercuts that basic fundamental principle of American government.

GROSS: How much control do parties have over redistricting?

EDWARDS: In almost every state, redistricting is done by the state legislature, which is - you know, essentially means by the majority party in every state legislature. And that's why you see, long before a presidential election or congressional elections, you'll see a state legislative election, and one party or the other will control - will win control of a State House or a State Senate, and the observers, the reporters, will say, you know, here's the effect that could have on the next Congress, because you assume they're going to draw district lines that are going to help increase their number of members in Congress.

So they have a lot. Now, 13 states, most recently California, said we're going to do away with party control of redistricting. And they've gone to independent, nonpartisan redistricting commissions. Most states haven't done that yet, but - you know, I really think the process has begun to change all of this.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mickey Edwards. He's the author of the new book "The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans." It's a critique of the political party process and the amount of power that parties have. And Edwards is a former Republican congressman. So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Mickey Edwards. In his new book, "The Parties Versus the People," he makes the case that the political party system and party leaders are behind the divisiveness in American politics today.

You spent 16 years in Congress as a Republican congressman. You're still a Republican. And I'm wondering what you think of the direction your party is taking.

EDWARDS: Well, I think that because of the system that I describe - I think it's true of both parties - that they're taking positions that are less open to finding common ground, less open to finding areas of compromise, and that's what's really bothersome.

Now, have their positions changed? Sure. I mean I was told by a political scientist that when I was in Congress, I was one of the most conservative members of Congress, and that if today, if today I were in Congress and I didn't change my vote at all, if I voted on exactly the same issues and voted exactly the same way I did then when I was chairman of the American Conservative Union, you know, that I would be one of the most liberal members today in the Republican Party.

So the party has changed. It has definitely moved to the right. But the way it has moved to the right and the way the Democrats today have fewer members who are willing to compromise and talk to the other side is because of this closed party primary system that's on both sides. And so that's fueled the change. That's made the change possible.

You - it's not that the people have become more ideological, it's that the people who get elected through this system have become more ideological, because that's who can win the primaries and get on the ballot.

GROSS: In 2008, when you and I first spoke, you were supporting Barack Obama for president, even though - actually he had just won, but you had supported him, even though you're a lifelong Republican. Where are you now? Do you care to say, or would you rather not?

EDWARDS: Well, you know, the reason I supported Obama was because I felt - and there were a lot of his positions that I disagreed with. I supported Obama because I really thought that George W. Bush's presidency needed to be repudiated. And that wasn't - it had nothing to do with spending or that. You know, it had to do with a very cavalier attitude toward the Constitution, and whether it's habeas corpus or as I just talked about, you know, saying I'm president, I don't have to obey the laws, I was just shocked. I was just shocked.

And I felt it was really important to repudiate that. So I was not - you know, I didn't support Obama because I necessarily supported his policies. You know, so I'm going to watch and see what happens. I'm going to watch this campaign, and I'm going to see what people are proposing.

GROSS: Mickey Edwards, thank you so much for talking with us.

EDWARDS: Thank you, Terry, I've enjoyed it a lot.

GROSS: Mickey Edwards is the author of the new book "The Parties Versus the People." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I want to let you know that Friday we're going to rebroadcast an interview with Hal David, the lyricist who collaborated with composer Burt Bacharach on many great songs. Hal David died Saturday at the age of 91. He said his favorite of all his lyrics was this one, "Alfie." Here's Cilla Black's 1966 recording. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALFIE")

CILLA BLACK: (Singing) What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live? What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? Are we meant to take more than we give? Or are we meant to be kind? And if only fools are kind, Alfie, then I guess it is wise to be cruel. And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie, what will you lend on an old golden rule? As sure as I believe there's a heaven above, Alfie, I know there's something much more, something even non-believers can believe in...

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