BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Parties Versus the People’

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THE PARTIES VERSUS THE PEOPLE: HOW TO TURN REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRATS INTO AMERICANS
By Mickey Edwards
Yale University Press, $25, 232 pages

Mickey Edwards, a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District for 16 years, is one of those rare political figures who continue to contribute meaningfully to the public debate after leaving office. In Congress, he served on a number of important committees and was a member of the House Republican leadership. After eight terms in Congress, he took his knowledge and experience to the classroom, teaching at Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown and George Washington University, bringing with him a depth of knowledge of how policy is shaped and formed, tempered by a valuable perspective gained in the world of practical politics.

He’s also the author of a number of books, has been a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, played a central role in the founding of the Heritage Foundation, served as national chairman of the American Conservative Union, participated in significant policy studies with the Brookings Institution, and today is a vice president of the Aspen Institute.

In “The Parties Versus the People,” Mr. Edwards goes to the heart of what most troubles Americans about our government today. Nothing gets done, our elected representatives play the blame game, and the operative word is gridlock. As he puts it, “Differences have hardened into polarization, and simple party identification has been overtaken by rigid partisanship.”

“Presidents, governors, and state legislators engage in partisan combat,” he writes, “but the Congress, where the problem is worst and the effects most damaging, has become utterly dysfunctional, unable to come together on any issue of national importance.”

Where does the blame lie? “The dysfunction that has almost paralyzed our federal government has its roots not in the people, not in any fundamental flaw in our constitutional processes, but in the political party framework, through which our elected officials gain their offices and within which they govern.”

It’s not his intention, he writes, “to take the easy path of simply blaming polarization. As I will argue in the book, it is the party system — Democrats against Republicans, not liberals against conservatives — that is at the heart of our political mess.”

He adds: “Vigorous conflict over competing values, principles and policies is a strength, not a weakness of democracy. This book is not about avoiding dissent but about avoiding conflict that is based on party rather than principle.”

His objective, he tells us, “is to open up the process to give American voters more choice and more voice to restore democracy to our democracy. That is not as hard a task as it might seem: a few simple changes are all that’s required.”

To that end, Mr. Edwards builds his book on a set of proposals for reform of the political process and the role parties play in it. Among them: eliminate partisan gerrymandering by relieving state legislatures of the responsibility for redistricting, and turning it over to nonpartisan panels; reform the fundraising process and re-examine the role of the media as the major recipient of campaign funds; allow contributions only from real people; establish a nonpartisan congressional leadership and change the way in which congressional staffs are chosen.

Other proposals include making the House Rules Committee bipartisan; breaking down artificial party divisions such as separate seating; and instituting a longer congressional workweek, with emphasis on bipartisan discussion and deliberation.

One of his proposed reforms is to create open primaries, with candidates from all parties appearing on the same ballot. Parties could endorse their preferred candidates. But they couldn’t decide which names would appear.

As an example of how this might work, he tells us of the primary process that first sent him to Congress as the representative of Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District. He was one of two men running in a closed primary, the other being G.T. Blankenship, a successful businessman with extensive elective state government experience. Mr. Edwards, on the other hand, had never held any elective office. “I was unknown to most in my community, inexperienced and clueless about the legislative process.” Had G.T. Blankenship appeared on the general election ballot, he writes, giving the voters the option to choose him, the Democratic candidate or Mr. Edwards, “he very likely would have won and represented the state with great skill.”

Mr. Edwards, a principled man, tells us that wouldn’t have been the outcome he’d have preferred, “but I do prefer a political system in which voters have that choice.”

An admirable and sincerely held sentiment, to be sure. But had it actually worked out that way, had it been an open primary, we probably wouldn’t have had this well-written, thoughtful and timely book. And that would have been our loss.

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