It wasn’t self-promotion or financial incentives that inspired former Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-Okla., to write his newest book, he says. It was a particularly vocal heckler at a town-hall meeting.
In the middle of the discussion, “Somebody got up, and he put his finger at me and he said, ‘I am so sick and tired of hearing Republican this, Democrat that,’ ” Edwards said. “And everybody in the room cheered. And I’ve never, ever forgotten that.”
The sentiment in that disruptive voice stuck with Edwards through the remainder of his eight terms in Congress, which stretched from 1977 to 1993, and through stints as a professor at Harvard and Princeton, finally inspiring his book, The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, published in August.
Edwards, 75, argues that political parties have hijacked democracy and nearly paralyzed the federal government.
Party-run primaries stifle choice, he says, and party-led redistricting often determines representation. The parties’ power, combined with their deep campaign coffers, enables them to demand absolute loyalty to orthodoxy—eliminating independence and silencing debate.
Since Edwards left Congress after losing a primary election in 1992, the problem has only gotten worse, he says—largely because of the leadership style of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., whom he blames for the cohesion of partisan power.
Edwards, a former chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, also admits with embarrassment that party politics benefited his own campaigns and his advancement in Congress.
“When you’re in that system,” he said, “it doesn’t occur to you that there’s something wrong with it.”
Although the situation is dire, the solution is relatively simple, according to Edwards. He puts forth in his book a list of small changes that he believes could return party power to the people, including ideas as straightforward as eliminating the separate cloakrooms and lecterns currently assigned to each party.
Edwards, who holds degrees in journalism and law and worked as a newspaper reporter and editor after graduating from the University of Oklahoma, acknowledges that his emphasis on objectivity and his desire to limit partisanship might stem from his background in the media.
But he has a long résumé of impressively partisan credentials, including five years as chairman of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation. And despite the seemingly centrist approach of his book, he says his political philosophy is “the same as it’s always been.”
Nevertheless, Edwards is not cut from the same cloth as the politicians he describes in his book. He recounts late-night dinners, golf outings, and several close friendships with former and current Democratic members, including retired Rep. Glenn English, D-Okla. “There are many, many current members who don’t like the way it has become. They want to be able to work with people on the other side of the aisle,” he said. Which members of Congress have a close relationship with Edwards? “I’m not going to say who, because I don’t want to get them in trouble.”
This article appears in the Sep. 12, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.