Gone Astray

Reviewed by Rick Perlstein
Sunday, May 4, 2008


How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost -- And How It Can Find Its Way Back

By Mickey Edwards

Oxford Univ. 230 pp. $21.95

Mickey Edwards is a decent and honorable man -- and not a bad writer. A Republican congressman from Oklahoma between 1976 and 1992 and a former chairman of the American Conservative Union, Edwards earned a reputation for upholding conservative principles even at the expense of party loyalty. But Edwards doesn't see much principle among today's conservatives. He doesn't even see much conservatism. "If Barry Goldwater initiated the conservative revolution," he writes, "George W. Bush may have ended it."

To Edwards, defining his beloved ideology is easy: American conservatism is constitutionalism, plain and simple. Article I establishes the duties of Congress -- which is why, Edwards points out, Congress has traditionally been called the "First Branch" of government. Directly answerable to the people, Congress protects the people -- against runaway spending, runaway executive power, runaway foreign adventurism. As Edwards thunders in his most striking formulation, "Many Americans, influenced by sloppy teaching and lazy journalism, have come to think of a president as America's leader. But . . . he is not the head of government; he is merely the head of one of three co-equal branches of government."

Back when the right was truly conservative, Edwards says, its leaders understood this in their bones. No longer. He records his horror at Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's January 2007 Senate testimony defending the executive branch's authority to ignore habeas corpus: "There is no expressed grant of habeas in the Constitution; there's a prohibition against taking it away." He reports goggle-eyed from a House Judiciary Committee hearing where "conservative" after "conservative" defended George Bush's extra-Constitutional signing statements. The quotation marks are Edwards's, not mine: "With every passing moment in that committee meeting it became clearer to me that it was now Republican 'conservatives,' my friends and allies for forty years, who were posing the greatest threat to the Constitution."

Why, by Edwards's lights, has this happened? First, because conservatism is an ideology that abjures power, and conservatives have gotten used to holding power. They have become what they were supposed to have despised -- politicians without principle. Neo-conservatives' shifting rationales for the Iraq war remind him, for instance, of "the old American Communists, who switched positions whenever new directives came out of the Kremlin."

Edwards maintains that conservatives recently have become obsessed with preserving traditional social behavior and morality, which he claims are not part of the true conservative ethos built on individual liberty and limited government -- "freedom and only freedom," in Goldwater's words. Pursuing "culture wars" over lifestyle differences, Edwards says, has "managed to turn modern American conservatism on its head." And he suggests that conservatives have recently begun deploying the American flag as a cudgel by, for example, subjecting opponents "to a steady dose of White House claims that criticisms of the Iraq war were 'unpatriotic.' " But every conservative coalition has included Americans who see themselves in a culture war and who question the patriotism of some of their opponents. Why does Edwards feel licensed to write people who share these views out of the fold?

In other ways, too, the former congressman's history of conservatism is exceptionally selective. Until the second Bush administration, he argues, "conservatives had always understood that a president had no more right to simply disobey the law than does the guy who cleans the windshield at the local filling station." He forgets how the right greeted Oliver North as its rock and redeemer in 1987 for unashamedly circumventing a law -- the Boland Amendment, banning U.S. funding for the Nicaraguan Contras -- that Edwards praises in this book as an admirable instance of the First Branch exerting its Constitutional power of the purse.

Similarly, Edwards claims that until recently "the most prominent supporters of the line-item veto had been liberal Democrats." He admits that Ronald Reagan also sought the power to strike individual spending items appropriated by Congress. But he argues that Reagan (whom conservatives, whatever else they may disagree about, almost universally consider to have been conservatism incarnate) was only bluffing: "In effect, proposing a line-item veto was a public relations stunt."

Such solecisms cannot survive the Internet age. Using the Proquest Historical Newspapers database, I quickly checked every instance in this newspaper in which someone proposed a federal line-item veto going back to the notion's debut in 1967. I found not a single liberal Democrat. I found, on the other hand, plenty of articles in the 1970s about then-Gov. Reagan's delight in exercising line-item veto power in California -- and, later, Republican after Republican proposing to give him that same power as president. It was, to be sure, a debate among conservatives, not a doctrine: "One of the few proposals rejected," ran a dispatch from a May 1981 conference of Republican officials, "was the suggestion by Gov. Christopher Bond" -- the conservative governor of Missouri -- "that the Constitution be amended to give the president line-item veto authority on appropriation bills." The Post article goes on to chalk up that defeat to the insistent opposition of a congressman named . . . Mickey Edwards.

Edwards has always been consistent. But one of the things he's been consistent about is defining his own heartfelt but rather idiosyncratic brand of proceduralist conservatism as conservatism, tout court.

So what is conservatism, truly? Any definition surely must begin with the presumption that conservatism is what people who identify themselves as conservatives habitually do. It also must not exclude conservatives' consistent visions of what a well-ordered society should look like -- which is why you simply can't erase patriotism, religion and reverence for authority from the equation.

Edwards likes quoting popular culture. In closing, so shall I. As Bob Dylan sang, "It ain't me, babe": That's the story every conservative "reclaimer" is telling after six years of government by executive, legislative and judicial branches dominated by self-described conservatives. ยท

Rick Perlstein is the author, most recently, of "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of the Nation."

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