TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Last night was a resounding defeat for the Republican Party, and it's unclear what direction the party will now head in and who its leaders will be. My guest, Mickey Edwards, is disillusion with the direction his party has taken in the past few years, including the tactics of the McCain-Palin campaign.
Edwards was a Republican congressman from Oklahoma from 1977 to 93. He's the former chair of the House Republican Policy Committee and the American Conservative Union. He co-founded the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, and is now a vice president of the bipartisan Aspen Institute. Edwards has written a book called "Reclaiming Conservatism." Mickey Edwards, welcome to Fresh Air.
Mr. MICKEY EDWARDS (Former Republican Congressman; Author, "Reclaiming Conservatism"): Well, thank you, Terry.
GROSS: You're a lifelong Republican, former Republican Congressman. What are your thoughts today on the election of Barack Obama?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, you know, I feel very good about it. I feel good for a couple of reasons, the fact that Barack Obama ran a pretty positive, upbeat kind of campaign. I mean, he criticized John McCain's positions on a number of issues. He criticized, as he should have, George W. Bush for a lot of his policies and the way his administration performed, but he also talked an awful lot about the fact that we're not red states and blue states. We're the United States.
And, you know, it says something about America that you would take somebody who is part of a minority of just over 12 percent of the population and elect that person to be president. There aren't very many countries on the planet that would do that, and so I think it's hard to not be really positive about the outcome of that election.
GROSS: Would it be too personal for me to ask if you voted for him?
Mr. EDWARDS: I did support Obama, yes. And it was not easy, you know. I've been, as you pointed out, I've been a Republican for my entire adult life. I served in Congress as a member of the Republican leadership. I was a policy director for the Reagan campaign in 1980. So, I mean, it wasn't easy, you know, to support a Democrat for president, but I did.
GROSS: How much of your support for Obama was enthusiasm for Obama, and how much of it was disillusionment with the direction the Republican Party is headed in?
Mr. EDWARDS: That's a really good question, Terry, because what I like about Obama primarily was not his policies, you know, I'm a Republican, but the fact that his temperament was the kind of temperament I think we need in the White House - calm, mature, thoughtful, deliberate. So, that had a lot to do with why I like Obama, but the fact is, the last eight years under this president, and, you know, I was a foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush's campaign in 2000 when he ran.
But his presidency has been awful, especially in terms of how cavalierly they have disregarded the Constitution and supported wire tapping without warrants, holding people in jail without charges, refusing to let the Congress question people in the administration. It's just been a terrible administration. And then it was supported by and empowered by the Republican who served in Congress.
And so, I was very disillusioned. I would look at the Bush administration, and I would look at the Republicans in Congress, many of whom were friends of mine, and say, what happened to my party? We were the party who believed in freedom. We were the party who believed in liberty, and we were the party to believe in the Constitution. And all of that had been swept away. So, I cannot imagine that the Democrats, who I had always opposed, could possibly do more harm to our Constitutional system than we, the Republicans, had done.
GROSS: You know, in your book, which is about the future of conservatism, you say, we've changed everything we believed in in order to win elections. What do you mean by that?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, what happened was that we believed for a long time, you know, that there were certain principles that had to govern how we interacted with society from the government standpoint. We want limited government. We weren't focused on small government, but limited government that did not operate outside the boundaries of the Constitution.
During the Reagan years, and the Bush's - the first Bush presidency, you know, what we always talked about was peace through strength. You know, that was a big thing with Barry Goldwater, too. We wanted peace through strength, so we would keep a strong military to increase the chances of being able to retain the peace. We did not want to go to war. War was the last option. ..TEXT: Well, we changed. Over time, the Bush administration and people in Congress, you know, that war became not a last option, but a first, or certainly not the last option. We used to argue that we wanted to protect the individual freedoms, and then we became the champions of taking away the requirement that a warrant be issued before you could do wiretapping on American citizens. And just one thing after another. We began to take the policies and the principles that have been central to what conservatives believed in and set them aside if we thought there was an electoral advantage to doing that.
And when I was in the House, and Newt Gingrich rose to Republican leadership, he made a thing out of this, you know, that what mattered was nonstop political warfare, partisan warfare to defeat Democrats - that was our whole goal. Our whole purpose was to defeat Democrats. Well, you know, I like the Republican Party, but I care a lot more about my country than I care about my party. And somehow, we got that reversed.
GROSS: You were in the House when Newt Gingrich became the House whip, and you write that, you know, under Newt Gingrich, it was all about party loyalty, and you say, instead of the president becoming the head of a separate branch of government, you were supposed to look at him as your team captain. So, instead of keeping a check on him, you were supposed to find a way to rally around him and help him. Can you give us an example of that and why you thought it was inappropriate?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, the basis of our form of government, Terry, is that power is separated. There was an article in Washington Post one time that referred to President Bush as he was getting ready to go overseas, saying that the president was stepping out of his role as the head of government to go overseas and act in his other role as head of state.
Well, you know, the president is not the head of government. He is the head of one of three separate branches of government. And the job of the Congress is to do its own decision making about the policies we're going to pursue as a nation, to be a check on the president just as the president will check on Congress, separated powers.
And that got set aside under the Gingrich model. It was your party that came first. Therefore, when you had a Republican president and a Republican Congress, your job was to support his policies as much as you could. That turned it upside down because the Congress is not supposed to be reactive to the president. The people who get elected to Congress take an oath of office, I took an oath of office, you know, to uphold the Constitution, and that got lost along the way.
So, you know, part of it became, you know, how do we as a Republicans defeat Democrats? How do we gain power? How do we hold the chairmanships? What do we have to do? What issues do we have to take to the House floor to get a Democrat in trouble with his or her constituents? That totally changed everything. Democrats were the target, and Republicans were told to raise enough money for our common pool to defeat every Democrat you can find standing.
We fulfilled James Madison's nightmare. You know, Madison was very concerned about partisanship. He was very concerned about faction. And, you know, all the things he feared came through when you had George W. Bush in the White House and Republicans in Congress.
GROSS: My guest is Mickey Edwards, former Republican congressman and author of the book, "Reclaiming Conservatism." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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GROSS: We're talking about the future and recent past of the Republican Party. My guest, Mickey Edwards, was a Republican Congressman for 16 years. He's the author of "Reclaiming Conservatism."
You teach at Princeton. You've taught at Harvard. You co-founded the Heritage Foundation. You're a leader of the Aspen Institute, which is also a think tank. Do you think the Republican Party has taken an anti-intellectual position, and do you think that there was an anti-intellectual attitude expressed in the McCain-Palin campaign?
Mr. EDWARDS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, the idea that somebody would be unqualified to be president because he has too much nuance or because he went to Harvard, just ridiculous, you know. We are the most powerful, most prosperous nation that has ever existed on the face the earth, and the idea that we would not want to find people who were well educated, thoughtful, reflective to help lead our country is just absurd, you know?
At one point, and this is an example Terry, I'm glad you brought it up. This is an example of how much things have changed in recent years. We used to talk about the fact that the Republican Party was the party of ideas, that it was the Democrats and the liberals who had gotten stale, who were talking about Nordstrom's, had failed everywhere they have been tried, you know. They had no new ideas. It was just, you know, more and more government, add higher and higher taxes and more and more regulations and so forth.
Well, that we were the party, the Republicans, were the party of ideas and new approaches, and now, all of a sudden, we have seen ourselves attacking the idea of being intellectual, being thoughtful, being reflective. Let me tell you, the fact of the matter, and it's really hard to hear, is that Joe the Plumber is not smarter than somebody with a law degree from Harvard, just not.
GROSS: How did this happen? You've been watching your party for a long time. You've been active in your party. How did it become anti-intellectual? How did being from Harvard become a bad thing?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, the strange thing is, you can take some of it back to the - not the individual but the ideas that came from somebody like Newt Gingrich, who, by the way, is very very bright himself. But when winning the elections became the dominant idea, it wasn't standing for your principles. It was winning your elections at any cost. That's easy. You'll look out there, and there are fewer people who went to Harvard and Princeton, you know, than there are who, you know, went to a community college or, you know, don't have a college degree, and therefore, if you appeal to them and say, look all these pointy headed liberals, you know.
Or you can even take it back even to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, you know, the idea that you had these pointy-headed intellectuals because the Kennedy administration had been populated by a lot of people from the Ivy League schools, you know. So it became kind of a politically advantageous thing to do to make fun of them, to attack them, and say, well, what do they know about mainstream? What do they know about going out here and working hard and earning a living?
You know, there's always been a bit of a strain like that in America. Andrew Jackson tapped into that strain, so there's always been a bit of a dismissive attitude toward intellectuals in America, but it's just been carried to a ridiculous extreme. You know, we say something bad about ourselves when we are dismissive of somebody having a good education. You know, even somebody like Abraham Lincoln, who, you know, did not have all the advantages of a great education, was self taught, took education, took learning as extremely important to the ability to succeed and do well in life. And anti-intellectualism will destroy the Republican Party.
GROSS: You voted for Barack Obama, but you remain a Republican, even though you've become disillusioned with the direction your party is taking. What are your concerns now? Do you have concerns now about a government that will have a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, you know, it really depends on how Obama reaches an accord with the Democrats in Congress. It is true, I think, that Obama, even though he's much more liberal than most Republicans would have liked, he talks about trying to find accommodation. He talks about reaching across the aisle.
There will be in the leadership in both the House and Senate, and especially in the House, a number of Democrats who are very liberal, who have been waiting a long time to enact a pretty liberal agenda, who no longer will need the support of the Republicans. In the Senate, there may be a filibuster problem, but that's not going to be, I think, a serious problem. You know, there is a very good possibility that Nancy Pelosi will drive the agenda or will certainly try to drive the agenda. So, yeah, sure I'm concerned. I think you can have taxes too low, especially when you have a multibillion-dollar war you're fighting, but you can also have taxes so high, you know, that they're counterproductive in that they hurt the economy.
So, I think Obama can reach accommodations that make sense, but, you know, it's whether or not his own party will allow him to do it. When Jimmy Carter was the Democratic president, you know, he was routinely beaten down by Democrats in Congress. When Bill Clinton became president, and he had his own healthcare plan that he wanted to move forward with, the Democrats in Congress blocked him. So Obama's not going to just call the shots by himself. There's going to be a lot of power among the Democrats in Congress. And I think they are probably going to be much more aggressive and much more partisan than Obama would be. I don't know yet, you know, how that's going to play out.
GROSS: You served in the House with John McCain. Did you see a different McCain during the election than the McCain that you knew?
Mr. EDWARDS: You know, Terry, I'm not really sure who John McCain now is. I served with him in the House. I've known John McCain for a very long time, over 30 years, but the man who ran for president this time was in many ways very different from the man who ran for president in 2000. He was adopting for a long time principles that made him sound like, as Howard Dean would have put it, the third term of George W. Bush. You know, he bragged about the fact that he voted with Bush 90 percent of the time. He made very, very overt appeals to the religious right after he had attacked them in 2000.
And then, at the very end of the campaign, he was emphasizing how he was not George Bush. He was different, and he talked about how terrible war was, and so I'm not really sure which was the real John McCain. I suspect, I only suspected that the real John McCain was not at all happy with what he thought he had to do in order to try to win the election and to hold the Bush supporters.
And I think he got himself caught up and tied up into a knot here, where he couldn't decide whether to be the authentic, independent-minded John McCain or try to be the guy who's going to turn out the angry Republican base. And he couldn't do both, and he just kept going back and forth between the two.
GROSS: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with us?
Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah. One, you know, I have to say, Terry, that I would have felt, you know, OK if John McCain had won because it would still be an improvement over what we've had over the last eight years. But Obama's victory meant a lot of things in terms of why so many of us have been proud all our lives of America, somebody from a relatively small minority getting elected president. You know, great numbers of people who have not been politically involved in the past and young voters coming out and working, seeing people, whether they were Republican or Democrat, McCain supporters or Obama supporters, knocking on doors, attending rallies, you know, this was democracy American style.
This was democracy that believed in participation by citizens to shape their own lives. You know, the basic difference between America and the countries that went before America was, in those systems, you had a common form of government, it was rulers and their subjects. And our founders said, we're not going to be anybody's subjects. We're going to be citizens. And where rulers tell their subject what to do, citizens tell their government what to do.
That's what we saw yesterday. We saw a real outpouring of citizenship and of citizens determining what their government's programs and policies and systems were going to be. I was very proud of America yesterday.
GROSS: Mickey Edwards, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. EDWARDS: Thanks, Terry. I enjoyed it.
GROSS: Mickey Edwards is now a vice president of the bipartisan Aspen Institute. He's the author of the book, "Reclaiming Conservatism." Coming up, we talk about last night's historic victory for Barack Obama with Mark Sawyer, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics at UCLA. This is Fresh Air.
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