BILL MOYERS: You’ve no doubt been following the maneuvers in Washington over the country’s finances. Well, they’re heading now toward a showdown. Unless someone blinks, the collision of irresistible forces with immoveable objects will be felt around the world. President Obama says he won’t budge when it comes to ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. And as rumors mount that some Republicans may be willing to give ground on taxes, conservatives in the party are shouting, “Remember the Alamo!” and demanding their leaders in Congress yield not an inch.
Dozens of conservative activists, outraged at the prospect of compromise, have sent an open letter to Republicans in the House and Senate “to stand firm and not surrender your conservative principles.” Their hero, of course, is this man, known around town simply as Grover. No, not the Muppet, but chief enforcer of the notorious Norquist Pledge against taxes. Republican candidates for office must sign or risk defeat by right-wing candidates in primaries where a turnout of die-hard partisans can decide the outcome. Among Republican politicians, fear of Grover has been greater even than fear of God, and such fear has kept Republicans in Congress from voting to raise taxes for 22 years, all the way back to 1990.
Mickey Edwards was still in Congress then. An eight-term representative from Oklahoma, and a formidable leader among conservatives who nonetheless knew how to work with opponents to get things done. He chaired the Republican Policy Committee, was a founding trustee of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and served as national chairman of the American Conservative Union. After redistricting by Democrats cost him his seat in 1993, he taught at Harvard and Princeton, became Vice President of the Aspen Institute, and wrote this book: “Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost--And How It Can Find Its Way Back.” Now he’s out with another book, one calling for real, even radical, change: “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.”
Mickey Edwards, welcome.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Thanks, Bill. It's good to see you again.
BILL MOYERS: And congratulations on the book, although I can't imagine it's made you the most popular visitor to the House Republican Caucus.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Not at all. But it wouldn't make me popular in the Democratic Caucus either, you know. It's a problem with the entire system, both parties.
BILL MOYERS: Because you believe in compromise. You advocate bipartisanship. Which means, in effect, that you are a man without a party.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Basically, right. But you know, there's 310 million of us now. And we're very diverse people. You can stand up for your principles. You can stand up for what you believe in. You get as far as you can go. But then at the end, you have to compromise or you can't keep the bridges from falling down, you can't pay off your debts, you know, you can't provide the troops with-- you can't do anything unless, finally, you compromise. And we seem to have lost the ability to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Your story, more than anyone I know, epitomizes the change in our politics over the last quarter of a century. Once upon a time, you were considered by political scientists, one of the most conservative members of the Republican Party in the Congress .
MICKEY EDWARDS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: But as you yourself have said, if you were still in Congress, if you were still voting exactly the same way you did then on the issues, you'd now be considered –
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah, one of the most liberal. Absolutely. Without changing at all. You know, with having been a conservative, staying true to those exact same beliefs, voting the same way, today I would be considered one of the more liberal members. The party has completely lost its roots.
BILL MOYERS: What about being a conservative then is out of date about being a conservative now?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, one of the things, and let's use Ronald Reagan as an example. Ronald Reagan stood for principles that conservatives have long believed in. But he believed in the country. He believed in solving problems. He believed in government.
Even though he would say that in terms of the Carter Presidency, the way he saw it, you know, the government was the problem, the next sentence after in his famous remark were that, "But, you know, let's make it clear. We're not against government. This is self-government. This is America. It's us." And he believed that. Today, you see so many people in Congress who really see government as the enemy, who are unwilling to come together to do even the most basic things like pay our bills. And you can't survive that way. So, the intellectual basis of Conservatism seems to have disappeared. The idea that you would, you know, go to war or that you would create a program or whatever else, and not pay for it, was the most anti-conservative thing you could imagine.
BILL MOYERS: Are there any reasons to be against big government?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Oh, sure there are. Sure, there are. Government can be too big. It can be too expensive. It can regulate too much. Sure, it can. But at some point, you push as hard as you can, if you're a conservative, to make government smaller, to make taxes lower. But you can't get it all.
You can't win everything all in one fight, because we're a big country and a lot of different views. And you have people on the left and the right who are so full of certitude and so unwilling to budge on what they think is the only right answer, that we stop functioning as an American people working collectively to solve our problems.
BILL MOYERS: There's a very strong sentence in here, very strong passage in here about how the loyalty of anybody who comes into public service, any officeholder, should be to the Constitution, not to some outside independent private group bringing pressure to bear on the government.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Right. And that's what the political parties are. You know, they're not in the Constitution. They're private power-seeking organizations. There's a reason to have political parties. But to give them the control they have over our political system is just wrong.
BILL MOYERS: Have you become disillusioned with politics?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Oh, very much. Very much. You know, you see campaigns today that are so nasty, so uncivil, so that if you and I -- and I like you a lot, Bill—and if we were both in politics today at the same time, you know, you'd be an enemy and I'd be an enemy, and we would not be able to sit and talk together. And I would think because you don't agree with me on a particular issue, you must be a very bad person. That’s nonsense.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think's going to happen in this deadlock on the fiscal crisis?
MICKEY EDWARDS: I don't think anything can happen unless both parties back off of their complete intransigence. There has to be new revenue.
And on the other side, you've got to look at the entitlement programs, which are, in fact, despite what Dick Durbin says, they are helping to drive the deficit. You've got to see, how do you get that under control? What kinds of changes -- you know, don't eliminate those programs, but is there a way to reform them?
There has to be give on both sides. And so far, both parties are saying, you know, "Compromise means you giving up. You know, and we're going to stand firm.” You know, even the president – the president went on television and he said, "We have to work together. We have to compromise."
And he then described how the people ought to put pressure on their members of Congress to support his plan. And so-- which was not a compromising way to do it. You know, I wish I were more confident, but, you know, I don't have high hopes for the people that we have in Washington today.
BILL MOYERS: When you were in Congress, did you have to sign the pledge never to raise taxes?
MICKEY EDWARDS: The only pledge… yeah, I signed a pledge. I signed a pledge to, you know, to follow the Constitution. Bill, I thought--
BILL MOYERS: You mean your oath of office?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah! I thought that when I was in Congress my job was to decide how to vote based on three things: listening to my constituents, maybe not always agreeing with them but listening seriously to my constituents, thinking about the issues, you know, getting as much information as I could to decide what I thought was the right thing to do, and make sure that I followed the Constitution. That was it.
I wasn't supposed to be following party leaders. I wasn't supposed to be following my campaign contributors. I wasn't supposed to be, you know, signing pledges to do this or that before I even heard a bill or knew what know circumstances were going to be at the time. You know, anybody who goes to Washington having signed a pledge to do anything other than that, you know, is really undercutting, you know, the whole purpose of them being part of the government.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that's what's disquieting, Mickey. You know, Grover Norquist, who is the well-known lobbyist behind the pledge never to raise taxes, boasts that no Republican has voted to increase taxes in the last 22 years. That takes us all the way back to 1990. But those 22 years, Republicans led us into two wars without asking us to pay for them.
They called for vast expenditures to fight terrorism. They gave big tax breaks to the top and the richest Americans and said, "Don't worry, your kids will pay for them." Republicans supported huge subsidies for agribusiness and big energy companies. Democrats did, too. They passed fabulous increases in Medicare prescription benefits for the elderly. Didn't raise a penny to pay for them. They advocated policies that led to the crash of 2008 -- so did Democrats. Today, we're $16 trillion in debt. And they boasting that they haven't raised taxes in 22 years. What's that about?
MICKEY EDWARDS: It’s certainly not Conservatism. It's not rational. And it's not adult. You know, when you create a program, you make a decision. You say, "I think we should conduct this war. I think that we should expand our security apparatus at home. I think that we should provide this additional benefit." Then you pay for it.
You vote to do it. And then you say, "Here's what it's going to cost." And you pay for it. You know, Republicans may complain about the federal debt, but they're as responsible as the Democrats for the debt being as large as it is. And once you have already done that, then you have an obligation to pay it down.
You know, so the idea that what you're going to do is say-- you know, "We're not going to raise taxes, we're not going to close loopholes, we're not going to do anything” -- that means that we're not going to pay off what we've already created. I mean, that's childish. That's childish.
BILL MOYERS: That's very interesting you say that, because Grover Norquist says he came up with this scheme for the pledge against taxes when he was 12 years old. Seriously. In other words, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower is in the grip of an ideology conceived by a pre-teenager who apparently remains to this day in a state of arrested adolescence.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, you know, the fact is, the idea that, you know, "No, I'm not ever going to do this no matter the circumstances, no matter if we're at war," whatever, it is a 12-year-old kind of thinking.
You know, it's a childish way of thinking. But you can't just blame Grover. There are members of the United States Senate and United States House who have signed those pledges. And let me say, I mean, we're talking about taxes and that's the Norquist Pledge.
You know, but supporters of other positions on immigration, a lot of different issues, when you're running for office ask you to sign a pledge, sign a pledge that you will support this, sign a pledge that you-- you know, the right thing for a member of Congress to say is, "You know the way I think. You know what my values are. I will look at the issues through that lens. You know, but, you know, the oath of office I take says that my job is to serve the country and the Constitution. And, you know, I'm not going to sign any pledges. I'm just going to take the oath of office."
BILL MOYERS: Nonetheless, for the benefit of our viewers, consider these figures. In the last Congress, the Congress presently leaving Washington, 238 representatives and 41 senators signed the Norquist Pledge. That's a total of 279. In the new incoming Congress, 219 representatives and 39 senators signed it, a total of 258. That's a little over half the Congress has taken this pledge, which means deadlock in the next three weeks is inevitable if they honor that pledge.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah. So, what they need to do is to say, "I have two pledges here, two pledges side by side. One is to Grover Norquist. One is to the Constitution of the United States. Which one am I going to honor?" And that's the choice they have to make.
And you have to be honest about the conversation. Because on the tax raising side of it, you know, the argument is, "We're going to tax the multimillionaires." But actually, the proposal is $250,000. It's not millionaires and it's not multimillionaires. And so, there's dishonesty coming from both sides and both sides digging in their heels and saying, you know, "We’re just not going to budge." And you can't operate that way.
That's why I say they should act as Americans, not Republicans and Democrats. This is not about fixing the problems of the country. It's about the elections of 2014.
BILL MOYERS: Let me play for you an interview that Norquist did with Politico's Mike Allen.
MIKE ALLEN: This president is not going to extend. He knows that he loses his leverage that way.
GROVER NORQUIST: Okay, well, the Republicans also have other leverage: continuing resolutions on spending and the debt ceiling increase. They can give him debt ceiling increases once a month. They can have him on a rather short leash, on a small, you know, "Here's your allowance, come back next month if you've behaved"--
MIKE ALLEN: Okay, okay, wait. You're proposing that the debt ceiling be increased month--
GROVER NORQUIST: Month--
MIKE ALLEN: --by month?
GROVER NORQUIST: --monthly. Monthly, if he's good. Weekly, if he's not.
BILL MOYERS: It does seem apparent that Norquist is prepared to bring the government down if he has to, if he doesn't get his way.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah, I don't know why anybody's paying any attention to him. You know, he doesn't hold any public office, he's a self-declared leader who goes around saying, you know, "This is what I want you to do." But where does he get his strength? Where does he get the force that makes people pay attention to him?
BILL MOYERS: Good question.
MICKEY EDWARDS: It's the fact that the people who are the most ideological will turn out and then even if they're a small percentage of the electorate, they will decide who can go forward. That’s the weapon he's got is, "If you don't go along, I can turn out enough people, not very many, but I can turn out enough people to beat you in a primary and end your career."
BILL MOYERS: But he also gets his strength from his money. Would it surprise you to learn that in one given period recently, two billionaire-backed groups, one associated the Koch brothers, one with Karl Rove's network of mysterious givers, these two groups donated over 60 percent of Grover Norquist's budget. I mean, isn't that what's really going on with the system, that the lobbyists chiefly presenting a more-- preventing a more equitable tax system is beholden to the plutocrats?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Money plays way too big a part in our political system today. You know, from both sides. You know, there's way too much money coming into it-- that there's no control over it, that what you have—well, let me tell you -- in my book, Bill, I probably have the most extreme position on this than anybody, because what I have proposed in terms of political campaigns, that no money should come from any source other than from individual human beings.
I would get rid of Political Action Committee money, political party money, labor union money, corporate money. You know, I would go down to small amounts that are instantly reported, all transparent. I think we have to do that, because it is this money pouring in -- what comes out at the end is not representative of what the American people want.
You know, the system gets skewed by these super influences, you know, whether it's the president PACs and the Democratic's Party PACs and the Super PACs or the Republican Party Super PACs, that's got to change.
BILL MOYERS: Well, no ideas can make it as long as we're in the grip of an undemocratic process which determines who's going to make those decisions.
MICKEY EDWARDS: One of the lines in my book is that all I'm trying to do here is put democracy back into our democracy. What our Founders did that was exceptional was they decided, "We are not going to be subjects. We're going to be citizens. So instead of the government telling us what to do, we'll tell the government what to do." And that only works if the people themselves have the power to decide who's going to be making the laws and it's not just a few, whether they're plutocrats or ideologues or whatever, who are able to skew the system.
BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago that Ronald Reagan believed in the country. Are you suggesting that -- or was it just a slip of the tongue that maybe John Boehner and that Republican leadership, that they don't believe in the country?
MICKEY EDWARDS: No. You know, the members of Congress who I know in both parties are patriotic. They love the country. But we've created an incentive system that gets you knocked off in your primaries, you know, unless you are willing to be intransigent and to say, "I will never compromise."
You know, Richard Murdoch beat Dick Luger in Indiana by saying, "I will never compromise." You know, Bill, thank goodness he wasn't at the Constitutional Convention. We wouldn't have a country today.
BILL MOYERS: How did we incentivize obstinacy?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, one of the things that's happened is that the ideologues in both parties have really started focusing on the primaries, because we have a system, you know, 46 of the 50 states, if you lose in your party's primary, your name cannot be on the ballot in November.
After Joe Biden became vice president and Delaware had to elect a new senator, so, Mike Castle, obviously, was going to be the next senator, everybody knew that, but he lost the primary to a lady named Christine O'Donnell. So, there's a state of a million people--
BILL MOYERS: A Tea Party person--
MICKEY EDWARDS: In Delaware, yeah. Yeah. But with a million people in Delaware, only 30,000 voted for her in the primary. And that was enough to keep Mike Castle off the ballot. And the million people in Delaware couldn't choose him. And, you know, and that's true in almost every state.
So, that's how it's happened. The ideologues have focused on using the party primaries to elect people who are not representative, maybe not even representative of their own party. But the other candidates now cannot be on the ballot in November.
You know, the Congress has most of the major power in this country about war, about taxes, about spending. You know, so, when you narrow the choices that the American people have as to who's going to serve in Congress, in the House or Senate, you're really undermining the whole democratic system.
And I don't know if you noticed this example just the other day. Bill Bolling, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, decided not to run, you know, for governor, because he knew that he could not win in a primary against the more conservative attorney general.
So, it really happens. Utah, when Robert Bennett was running for reelection, two thousand of the people who voted in a Republican convention in a state of three million people were able to keep him off the ballot in November. You know, there's something really seriously wrong with that.
BILL MOYERS: So, what's the simplest explanation, the clearest explanation for why the ideologues, the folks who don't want to compromise, the hardliners, can control the primary process? What's the reason behind that?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Part of it is the fact that American citizens don't get as involved as they should in voting early. The American people are exposed, and especially those who are most ideologically motivated to extreme positions, certitude. There have been a lot of things written about the fact that the American people now tend to talk only to people who think the way they do, you know, and not open to a civil conversation with people on a different side.
So, all of these things have conspired that the people who are the most hardline, most partisan, dominate the party conventions, dominate the primaries. But those primaries and conventions are not just endorsers. The problem is, they now have the ability to keep other people off the ballot. They should not have that power.
BILL MOYERS: So, how do you open the choices to people who didn't win in the primary?
MICKEY EDWARDS: In 2006, the people in Washington State finally had, you know, over 40 percent of Americans now call themselves Independents. People are fleeing from the parties. And in Washington State they said, "You know, we're tired of this system." And they passed an open primary, which is, it's not a crossover primary, it's a truly open primary where every candidate who's a qualified candidate is on the same ballot, regardless of party, and every single registered voter in that state could vote among all those candidates.
It's like having a general election with a runoff if you don't get over 50 percent. That was 2006. California did the same thing in 2010. And both states got rid of partisan control of gerrymandering, drawing district lines.
BILL MOYERS: I remember when they when they redrew your district. Suddenly you had a big L.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Big upside-down L, right.
BILL MOYERS: Upside-down L that went all the way from Oklahoma City up to the Kansas border.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah, and then halfway across to Arkansas. Yeah. As you know, Bill, I represented Oklahoma City. I’m a city guy. You know, to me, food comes from a grocery store and not, you know. I don't know anything about farming. But because I was a Republican that won in a heavily Democratic district, when we had a state legislature that was dominated by the Democrats, you know, they redrew my district so that I was now representing wheat farmers and cattle ranchers and small town merchants. And I thought, "Well, look what they did to me." But they didn't. They did it to those people who were entitled to be represented by somebody who could speak for them. You have to take away the ability of the parties to draw district lines in a way that take away representation from the citizens.
BILL MOYERS: You say take away the parties' control over redistricting.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Thirteen states have now done that. Thirteen states have said, "We will put together non-partisan independent redistricting commissions."
BILL MOYERS: How?
MICKEY EDWARDS: The independent commissions are the only way to do it. Now, every state does it differently. So, what you have--
BILL MOYERS: Iowa does a good job of this.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Iowa does a very good job of it. And other states do, too. But you've got to have the commission be large enough and balance it with people from enough views that what comes out at the end is hopefully going to be fair based on population, based on interests, as opposed to -- and competitive elections -- as opposed to allowing a party draw the lines just to help them get more seats.
You know, there's kind of a revolution starting, Bill, against the concept of party control of our choices. So that now we look at what's happening in Washington, and, you know, one day it's Nancy Pelosi saying, "We're not going to compromise," the next day it's John Boehner saying it.
MICKEY EDWARDS: And then Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate says, you know, what my goal is to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
They're supposed to be leaders of the legislative branch of the government, not party hacks. And we have a system now, you know, that is all about looking toward the next election, how we do that.
BILL MOYERS: This is a strong indictment of the polarization of the two parties.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: But isn't the country also very polarized?
MICKEY EDWARDS: The country is very polarized in some senses. But you also find the American people saying, "Solve the problem. Don't go over a fiscal cliff." Or, you know, "Pay our bills," or, "Do something about the budget." Now, I think even though the people tend to not be open to a lot of different views, they want the people they elect to make government work.
BILL MOYERS: So, we have created a political system that rewards intransigence.
MICKEY EDWARDS: We've created a system that says, "We reward incivility. We reward refusal to compromise. We punish people who compromise and are civil and get along well with the people on the other side of the aisle." So, why are we surprised that that's what we get in everything in life? You get what you reward. And you don't get what you punish. And that's what we've done to our political system.
BILL MOYERS: What's in store for the fate of a democracy that cannot be flexible enough to compromise between its strongly-held prejudices?
MICKEY EDWARDS: You know, if you have hardening of the arteries, it'll kill you as a person and it'll kill you as a country. What you have to do is to be able to maintain the health of the democracy by saying, "It depends on people of different perspectives to come together, have intellectual discussions, you know, listen to each other, tolerate other ideas, not be so full of how right they are. You know, and then say, 'Where can we come together?'"
You know, that's what's required. And the more we are locked into, you know, "This is the only right answer," or, "This is their only right--" certitude will kill this country.
BILL MOYERS: Why haven't you given up?
MICKEY EDWARDS: I will tell you, people ask me, "So, it sounds like you're a pessimist." I said, "No, I'm optimistic. I think the revolution's begun. I look at Washington. I look at California. I look at the 40 percent of the people who call themselves Independents. I look at the constant attacks by people against this nasty partisanship. You know, so I think Congress got down to 13 percent approval, which only proves there's 13 percent who are not paying attention."
If everybody was just happy with what's happening, I would say, "We have really lost, you know, control of our system." But the thing that does concern me, Bill, is to have this kind of a system of democracy, you need to have a citizenship, you know, that is capable of operating in this kind of a democracy. So, we need to do a better job of teaching civics. We need to do a better job of teaching critical thinking. You know, we need to do-- we need to have more citizens who engage, show up in the primaries, show up in the elections. We can start by fixing the political system.
BILL MOYERS: I would say that one way to start is to read, "The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans." Mickey Edwards, thank you very much for being with me.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Thank you. I enjoyed it.