America’s founding philosophers never expected political parties to dominate our elections and governance. According to Mickey Edwards in his new book, “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans,” we face a crisis in public confidence and political participation in great part due to overweening partisan interests that have transformed our government into “a never-ending battle between two warring tribes.” Edwards, a former congressman from Oklahoma, acknowledges that his own slide from party loyalty alarmed friends who felt his academic stint at Harvard had him “drinking too deeply from the waters of the Charles River.” Readers who share his frustration with the nonstop negativity in American politics may wish he had imbibed even more.
An erstwhile Republican, Edwards is one of the founders of No Labels, an organization devoted to bipartisan (or nonpartisan) political action. Here he argues for changes in how we elect our representatives — the role of parties in primaries, redistricting, and campaign financing, he argues, has stifled the ability of voters to find and elect candidates who truly represent not only their interests, but their values. Once in office, he says, congressional members can and should be forced into more productive problem solving by removing or tweaking some of the worst (and most recent) excesses of partisan power.
Few would disagree with most of Edwards’s recommendations, particularly when it comes to the filibuster and “hold” on nominees, two tools that function as “a weapon of tyranny by the minority.” Making each process more transparent (no more anonymous holds, no more no-show filibusters) would allow voters to evaluate — and replace, if necessary — the representatives whose actions seek only to obstruct. Edwards’s modest tweaks, such as eliminating the tradition of a Republican microphone and Democratic microphone in congressional chambers, and longer work weeks for Congress, seem eminently reasonable and long overdue.
Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Edwards has a finger on the scale. While he repeatedly describes an equal-opportunity slide toward extreme partisanship, citing Democratic senators who have voted with their party more than 90 percent of the time, he doesn’t differentiate much between party cohesion and ideological coercion. While GOP senators vote as a group as frequently as Democrats, many formerly moderate Republicans have had to change their positions on policy matters as the party has lurched to the right (witness this year’s emerging consensus that birth control, not just abortion, is a controversial form of women’s health care). And his argument that the primary process, in the hands of party loyalists and extremists, tends to push out moderate voices, is more obviously true in the case of the GOP, both on the national and state level. Where is the Democratic equivalent of the Tea Party darlings who ousted incumbent Republicans in several 2010 primaries? More than once, Edwards discusses the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement as mirror-image protests sharing a grass-roots appeal and a valid message about economic disenfranchisement, but in relative influence on party politics they are like an elephant and a flea.
Similarly, in positing a steady slide toward extreme partisanship in governance, Edwards compares the rate of judicial confirmations in the Reagan and Obama administrations, without mentioning that every president in the past 35 years has enjoyed congressional confirmation of his nominees in the 80 to 90 percent rate, except Obama (42 percent). That’s not a story of decline, it’s a drop off a cliff.
This is a hard time to be a moderate Republican. One senses that Edwards, who cares about pragmatic solutions, wishes he could criticize his own party more openly (he does say that Newt Gingrich exercised “dictatorial authority”as speaker of the House), or better yet, rescue it. Many Americans, whether Democrats, Republicans, independent or otherwise, would welcome a few more like him in office.