Just as Paul Revere rode through the Massachusetts towns of Arlington, Somerville, and Medford in April 1775 sounding the alarm of the British advance towards Lexington, former Congressman Mickey Edwards (R-OK) has issued a powerful, succinct warning about the mounting troubles within our nation’s system of governance. Edwards has also constructed a reasoned, legitimate prescription for how to restore the soul of the conservative movement which once stood guard to defend American liberty, privacy, and freedom.
Published in March 2008 by Oxford University Press, Edwards’ Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost—and How It Can Find Its Way Back first crossed my desk shortly before Thanksgiving, just as pundits and experts were still critiquing the reasons for the continued thrashing of Republicans ranging from the 2006 midterm elections to the defeat of McCain-Palin-style big government internationalism. The timing of my discovery couldn’t have been better.
Dissecting the crisis within the American conservative movement and the Republican Party, Edwards reminds readers that American conservatism is the natural continuation of European liberalism of the likes of John Locke and John Stuart Mill and a rejection of what is known as European conservatism that sought to safeguard the power of the crown. Edwards contends that American conservatives once stood for several basic principles: a focus on individual rights, resisting concentrated power, ensuring that power is not used to advance favored interests, prudence, and most importantly, is a freedom-centered value system.
These principles, contends Edwards, have been lost during the years between Newt Gingrich’s rise to power in Congress and today, replaced with a commitment to blindly advance the goals of the Republican Party rather than holding true to the philosophical goals of freedom, peace, individualism, community, rule of law, justice, restraint, and limited power. In essence, Edwards proposes returning to the key principles championed by the Founding Fathers who sought a clean break from the European style conservatism of old and its ethnic nationalism, powerful executive or monarch, religious fundamentalism, and minimal focus on the individual.
Edwards also suggests that the Bush presidency has led to an even more severe decline in respect for the guideposts of conservative thought. "No president in American history has conducted such a relentless, persistent campaign, on so many fronts and through so many means, to centralize political power in his own hands," says Edwards in Part II of the book. Perhaps most troubling to Edwards is the manner in which conservatives and Republicans in general have become subservient to the Executive Branch—a position which runs in conflict with the traditional tenants of American conservative thought.
As the Bush administration was busy illegally suspending habeas corpus rights, issuing signing statements with the intent to ignore the rule of law, expanding eavesdropping powers against American citizens, stripping away due process rights, breaking down the wall between church and state, rushing to war, and expanding the powers of the federal government everywhere from education to health care, conservatives in Congress became an extension of the Executive Branch rather than choosing to carry out their Constitutionally mandated duties to check the growth of presidential power. Meanwhile, conservative pols, activists, and pundits (this writer included) also fell asleep at the switch, failing to oppose an obvious power grab that jeopardized our liberty and privacy.
The Republican-led and conservative-dominated Congress in the Bush era—says Edwards—will be remembered for their compliance as "the Bush administration has actively pursued the establishment of an American monarchy." For example, upon his rise as Speaker, Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and Republican congressional leadership simply became members "of the president’s staff" and not independent thinkers charged with leading a separate and co-equal branch of government. The Republican, conservative Congress simply went along with whatever the White House asked while ignoring its own oversight abilities, especially in lead up to the costly, unnecessary war in Iraq.
A former national chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU) and a founding Heritage Foundation trustee, Edwards writes convincingly of the need for restoring Congress’ proper role and ending its act as lapdog for the White House. His discussion of this issue deserves the attention of liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike as we enter a new era this month with the inauguration of President Obama and a heavily Democrat legislature.
Edwards concludes by offering several detailed steps for renewing and reclaiming the conservative tradition and legacy. While urging conservatives to remember that we are a religious people but that America is a secular nation, Edwards suggests the rejection of the destructive Gingrich legacy that put the advancement of party before principles and first-class public policy. He wisely recommends re-embracing the Goldwater/Reagan concept of "peace through strength" as a deterrent to war and not a reason for starting one.
Conservatives, according to Edwards, should support rational federal spending limits, must issue a new declaration of independence that pledges allegiance to country and principle rather than to any party, embrace the opportunity to shape the performance of government, reexamine our basic values to include opposing the tyranny of both big business and bureaucracy, and (most significantly) re-read the Constitution with the understanding of the proper roles and powers of each branch of government and the rights guaranteed to the people.
This is a time of great soul searching for conservatives, Republicans, and all who remain disenchanted with a national politics that rejects the Constitution and places partisanship and power above all else. Reclaiming Conservatism sounds the alarm at the right time just as Revere did in Middlesex County, urging the return of time-tested political truths that put the national interest first.
Nathan Shrader can be reached at [email protected] He holds an MS in Political Science from Suffolk University, where he first met former Congressman Edwards in 2006 during a visit via the "Congress to Campus" program.