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May 21, 2008

explaining a lack of principle

Recently, and by coincidence, I have twice heard Mickey Edwards talk about his new book, Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost--And How It Can Find Its Way Back. Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years, during which time he served on the powerful Appropriations Committee and chaired the House Republican Policy Committee. In those years, he also co-founded the conservative think tank known as the American Enterprise Institute Heritage Foundation. He was a "movement conservative" if there ever was one.

His book, however, excoriates today's Republicans for ignoring constitutional limits on the power of government. I have not read the book, but Mr. Edwards argues in public that the problem is basically moral. It is the duty of the legislative branch to preserve and uphold the Constitution and to check the power of the president. Lately, Republican members of Congress have abandoned both roles because they have identified more with their party than with their institution. Edwards is especially outraged by presidential signing statements and violations of the FISA statute, because these actions threaten the rule of law.

It is appealing when an avid member of a movement reproaches his own side on moral grounds. (At any rate, I, as an opponent of this particular movement, find this particular apostasy appealing.) But I'm not sure that Edwards' diagnosis is complete. Why do politicians sometimes put institutions and institutional self-interest ahead, and at other times heed partisan interest? It is not clear that a self-interested politician should yoke himself to either an institution or a party. It requires some explanation why a group of politicians should switch from one loyalty to another. Understanding the reason can help guide reform.

In this case, I suspect the the "party of limited government" forgot all about limits for several reasons. Party leaders have gained control of important sources of campaign money and use the cash to enforce discipline. Public opinion doesn't help; Americans are insufficiently concerned about the Constitution. But here's a third important reason: polarization. There are hardly any liberal Republicans left in Congress, and not all that many conservative Democrats. This means that strategy sessions on both sides are relatively homogeneous. It is therefore easier to fall into "group think" and a kind of team spirit in which anything that we do is good and anything that they try to do is suspect. Conservatives can easily talk themselves into the belief that liberals are not only competitors; they are enemies of the constitutional order. If the great threat to the Constitution is the other side, then beating them becomes a moral obligation, even if one has to compromise a bit on specific constitutional principles. Such reasoning may not be the cause of Republican tactics, but it is a psychologically compelling rationale; and rationales matter.

May 21, 2008 11:37 AM | category: none


From Mickey Edwards, by email:

Thank you for your comments about my book, "Reclaiming Conservatism." First, just one correction: I was one of the three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation and national chairman of the American Conservative Union, but not a founder of AEI.

I'm not sure I would have described my criticism of my fellow Republicans as being on "moral" grounds, but I do claim they have allowed their extreme partisanship to cause them to seemingly abandon any sense of principle in defense of a president of their own party no matter how egregious his violations of the Constitution. Is that a "moral" failing? Perhaps it is. You're certainly right that a "group-think" mentality has taken hold and in my book I describe the steps that led to that point under the Gingrich leadership era.

But my book is deliberately called "Reclaiming", not reinventing, conservatism. We've had it right before and maybe we can get it back again. I hope so.

May 22, 2008 7:44 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

This is an interesting issue, about conservatism having to go back to basics. It is also interesting because we hear more about conservatives loosing their way than liberals. That is probably because conservatives have a more fixed agenda than liberals, whereas liberals are generally more open and flexible.

Conservatives have felt that they are superior. That superiority can get one into trouble. They also feel that they have been the political underdogs. So to gain the edge they have resorted to some unethical measures. Those measures were used during the Bush administration. Now they have backfired. Consequently, conservatives are now doing some soul searching, an activity that they haven't generally been known for and have avoided.

Conservatives may also suffer from being poor judges of character, in their rush to gain acceptance. Because of this they have picked politicians who have sounded conservative but instead have been self-serving.

In the end, it is liberals who are probably better at being conservatives than conservatives because they generally have a better pulse of the nation.

Conservatives used to say that liberals had no new ideas. Now the tables have turned. But perhaps there were no new ideas about governance to be had , that they had all been discovered and the real problem was that they hadn't been correctly acted on. I think that on the whole liberals have been better at picking and acting out on the right ideas than conservatives.

May 22, 2008 1:38 PM | Comments (2) | posted by airth10

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