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Transcript:

March 7, 2008

BILL MOYERS: Welcome back, and thanks for your support of this station. Joining me now to talk about what John McCain's nomination means for conservatism and thing country are Matt Welch and Mickey Edwards, whose books you ought to read as this fascinating campaign unfolds.

It's often been said that when Mickey Edwards speaks conservatives listen. And that's why they're digging into his new book, published this week, with the title RECLAIMING CONSERVATISM: HOW A GREAT AMERICAN POLITICAL MOVEMENT GOT LOST, AND HOW IT CAN FIND IT'S WAY BACK. In it, he argues that by building an imperial presidency, so-called conservatives have gutted the system of checks and balances, abandoned due process, and trampled upon our civil liberties, strong views from a lifelong conservative. Mickey Edwards served in Congress for 16 years, was national chairman of the American Conservative Union, and a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation. He's now a vice president of the Aspen Institute.

Matt Welch lit up the blogs with his book, MCCAIN: THE MYTH OF A MAVERICK, and the long article he wrote for the libertarian Magazine REASON, where he is editor in chief. Look at this headline over his article. "Be afraid of President McCain, the frightening mind of an authoritarian maverick. Welcome to both of you.

MATT WELCH: Thank you very much for having me.

BILL MOYERS: Have you endorsed a candidate yet?

MATT WELCH: No, we haven't. The Reason magazine actually doesn't get into the business of endorsing candidates. We just write about them and instill a certain institutional fear about what might come.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what's the answer to the Bill Moyers you ask in the magazine? What's the fear from President McCain?

MATT WELCH: John McCain has an ideology that's little appreciated and little understood by the press. He receives more adoring press probably than any Republican that I can think of in my lifetime, or certainly the last 20 years. And by the time you're done reciting all of the marvelous things in his biography and talk about how much fun it was on the Straight Talk Express, there's not a whole lot of time to talk about where he came up with his ideas about what the government should or should not do.

His ideas about what the government should do are basically, he wants to restore your faith and my faith and Mickey's faith in the idea of America being a shining city on the hill. He wants to restore our faith in governing institutions, in the federal government, in other words, and use the federal government as a sort of blunt instrument to go after anything that makes us cynical about those institutions and the greatness of America. It's a sort of national greatness conservatism which has a kind of militaristic component, let's say, in which we are all supposed to sort of sacrifice ourselves to the greater cause, the higher power of American nationalism.

BILL MOYERS: You say he's the most pro-war candidate in the last decade.

MATT WELCH: People forget this, but in 1999 and 2000, when he was running against George Bush, he was the neoconservative candidate. You know, four years before the doctrine of preemptive war ever even occurred to Bush, McCain was running on a campaign of rogue state rollback, is what he called it, in which America was supposed to go anywhere there was an authoritarian dictatorship. We were supposed to help the insurgents materially, covertly, however. And if those insurgents got cracked down upon about the government, then we support them militarily. It is a much more radical and interventionist approach than George Bush ever had, certainly at the beginning of his presidency.

BILL MOYERS: So you ask in your book, it's time that we look for the real McCain. Well, Mickey Edwards knows the real McCain.

MICKEY EDWARDS: I do.

BILL MOYERS: And they've been friends for a long time. And you're supporting him, right?

MICKEY EDWARDS: No. No, I'm not. I actually have not taken any position in the campaign.

BILL MOYERS: You haven't?

MICKEY EDWARDS: No. I think there are things about John that are quite good. You know, I think John believes in most conservative principles about limited government, and so forth. But he does have one tendency that does bother me. That is, I think he has a little bit of the same Bush attitude, that when I am put in charge, it is my job, you know, to make things work, to protect the country, whatever. Without the constraints that the constitution puts on the presidency. And I was very heartened when Charlie Savage of THE BOSTON GLOBE asked the various presidential candidates, will you follow President Bush's habit of issuing signing statements saying, I as president, don't have to follow the law — McCain said he would not do that. But that I do think it is part of John's personality to just take charge. And you know, the constitution doesn't you know, some presidents think they're the head of government, right. They're not the head of state, but they're not head of government. And I think—

BILL MOYERS:Wait a minute. What do you mean?

MICKEY EDWARDS: We have a tripartite system. I hate to tell you this, but the executive branch — head of the executive branch is not the head of government. It's one of three equal branches. And George Bush forgot that. And I'm not totally sure that John McCain would remember it.

BILL MOYERS: Did you watch the endorsement of McCain by George Bush earlier this week?

PRESIDENT BUSH: In 2000 I said, vote for me, I'm an agent of change. In 2004, I said, I'm not interested in change — I want to continue as President. Every candidate has got to say "change." That's what the American people expect. And the good news about our candidate is, there will be a new President, a man of character and courage — but he's not going to change when it comes to taking on the enemy. And there's still an enemy that lurks, an enemy that wants to strike us. And this country better have somebody in that Oval Office who understands the stakes, and John McCain understands those stakes. SENATOR MCCAIN: Thank you, sir. I don't have anything to add.

BILL MOYERS: Combine that with what you said and what write, and it seems to me that Bush is echoing — it seems to me that McCain is echoing Bush and Cheney when it comes to the imperial presidency, the power of the presidency, to the foreign expeditions, to a strong — to, you know, doubling the budget. Am I wrong on that?

MICKEY EDWARDS: No. I think he's making a mistake in showing up at the White House, standing beside George Bush. You know, the thing that gave him all of the credibility that he had was that he was perceived as a maverick. He was perceived as somebody who is not in George Bush's pocket. You know, now, he undercuts that. First of all, he's already won the nomination, right. So why does he need to play to that very small base of Bush supporters?

BILL MOYERS: Why?

MICKEY EDWARDS: You know, I think — well, you know, it was — I think it was a mistake. Because if I were him, I would say, "The Bush presidency is ending. I'm something different." Not "I'm a continuation." The country does not want a continuation of George W. Bush.

MATT WELCH: A very interesting artifact of this primary season that if you look in the early elections — before Super Tuesday, McCain never won even a plurality among voters who self-identify this Republican when asked.

MATT WELCH: Even in close primaries. He was tied at best, with anybody. He won because he won two to one on the vote that was anti-war, that was angry at Bush, and who described themselves as independents. And independents in this country, even more than regular citizens, are completely against the war. People— he won the Republican nomination because of the anti-war vote.

BILL MOYERS: Fascinating.

MATT WELCH: It's fascinating.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain it?

MATT WELCH: I think it's partially because he's a charismatic, likeable fellow. People have a fond memory of the 2000 campaign, when he was being very mavericky, and he was calling, you know, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agents of intolerance, and these kind of things. And he seemed to speak his mind in a way that was unusual for a politician. And he's just sort of a charismatic personality.

But it's also because I believe that he's both overexposed and under-examined. People don't really look at his foreign policy, his experience, his family tradition. His father and grandfather were both four star admirals in the U.S. Navy. And not just that. They were both really strong advocates for a sort of 19th century British model of imperialism, for lack of a better word. Of using the huge navy to guarantee the world, make the world safe for democracy. This is the tradition that John McCain has marinated in his whole life. And it was only Vietnam that sort of knocked him off his game. It reduced his faith in the sort of — the right of America's might. He regained that faith right about the time that he started running for president for the first time. And since then, he's right on message. And that message is more interventionist, it's more explicitly militaristic than George Bush.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Now, you know, I think there's another factor. And that is that Hillary and Obama are two evenly matched political heavyweights. There are some other heavyweights who maybe didn't do as well, like Joe Biden, in that race. John McCain — you know, Fred Thompson was almost a joke in his candidacy. Rudy Giuliani decided not to even campaign until Florida. You know, so McCain really did not have much of a challenge for the nomination. And I think you had some person of a higher quality, or a more forceful campaign style, been able to take him on. I'm not sure he would have won.

MATT WELCH: It's an interesting thing, that he was doing so badly in the summer, that no one attacked him. You know, every one of the debates, would say, John McCain is an American hero, he's a great friend. And they would attack Mitt Romney, or they would attack Giuliani. He actually didn't get challenged too much in the primary until the last six weeks, maybe.

BILL MOYERS: But what we see happening now is that the people who may not have supported him in the campaign are now lining up behind him. You have the neocon warriors who believe the Republicans are the party of war. And you have the Christian right, who believes that the Republicans are the party of God. You've got these two extremes, one for war, one for God. When you wed that militant state with a fanatical religion, you're getting something that conservatives don't like, right?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, you know, first of all, neither the neocons nor the Christian right were part of American conservatism. You know, they may fit in European conservatism, where Winston Churchill said conservatism is not reverence for the king and the church. But that's not what American conservatism was about. We were about the constitution. We were about the fact that, you know, our document, our founding document — we made a major fundamental change in governance. And that was, we were not going to be a government and its subjects. We were going to be citizens and their government. You know, and that's a basic change.

BILL MOYERS: Limited government, strong personal liberty. The idea —

MICKEY EDWARDS: A very strong commitment to personal liberty, including, you know — sometimes people forget this — There are ten provisions, ten amendments in the Bill of Rights. But the document says we're going to divide power, we're going to constrain power. Powers that had always belonged to the head of government in Europe — you know, to make war, to set spending priorities, to set tax levels — were deliberately withheld from the American president. And the whole idea was to keep power in check. We are a religious people. Americans are a religious people. But we're a secular nation. There's a big difference.

BILL MOYERS: There is a big difference.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: But John Hagee won't agree with you.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Hagee and those folks say this is a Christian nation, founded as a Christian nation.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Right.

BILL MOYERS: Which would be news to the founders.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Which would be news to the founders.

BILL MOYERS: That they are one of the dominant constituencies in the Bush administration which has given its mantel now to John McCain.

MATT WELCH: But John McCain is also someone who has famously said, especially in the 2000 campaign, that, "you know the old joke about the Christian right? They're neither." He called Falwell and Robertson agents of intolerance. He has always had an arms length distance from the Christian right. He is not one of them, even though he himself goes to an evangelical church. His faith is part of his life. But as he's put it himself on the campaign trail — and people haven't written about this too much — he doesn't really care about social conservative issues. What's interesting to him are questions all revolving around national greatness. This year, it's about the war, mostly. In 2000, it was re — the campaign finance reform. His record, you know, he's a very strong anti-abortion record, if you just judge by his votes. But if you judge by what actually animates him, social conservatism isn't really part of it. And the religious right, to this day feels like he, feels like they lost in this primary election.

MATT WELCH: I just spoke at the CPAC Conference, which is largely young religious conservatives--

BILL MOYERS: The annual gathering, right?

MATT WELCH: Yes. And I actually gave a talk about McCain's role with faith. And by far, he was the — I mean, people were hissing at the sound of his name. He is not their candidate.

MICKEY EDWARDS: I think you can put too much emphasis on the power of the Hagees. Every exit poll that was taken during the primaries showed that those people who called themselves strongly conservative — which usually, now, these days, you know, means something like the religious conservatives, or whatever — was always less than a third of the electorate. You know, they're —

MATT WELCH: In the Republican Primary.

MICKEY EDWARDS: In a Republican primary. They're not as powerful as they think they are.

BILL MOYERS: But a consistent third. A consistent third.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Oh, yeah. About 30 percent. 28, 29, 30 percent. Oh, they're — they're a bloc, you know. But they are not nearly the majority of Republican voters.

BILL MOYERS: Let's take a look at John Hagee's—

MICKEY EDWARDS: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: —endorsement of McCain.

HAGEE: In the matter of immigration John McCain has pledged to secure the borders of the United States first. No immigration policy will work until our borders are secure. John McCain's position on the war and Iraq was right from day one. He supported our troops by encouraging them to stay the course. John McCain has stated he will appoint conservative judges who will follow the constitution of the United States. Not rewrite the law from the bench. John McCain has pledged to veto any bill that has a pork barrel clip on attached. He will support the Bush tax cuts.

BILL MOYERS: Now, Mickey, take what John Hagee said — take him as serious man — take John McCain standing there, welcoming his endorsement, take what you said about conservatives owing their inspiration to the constitution with a limited government and personal liberties—

MICKEY EDWARDS: Right.

BILL MOYERS: Where that, listening to that, does John McCain's stand in the evolution or in the reclaiming of conservatism, which is your mission in life?

MICKEY EDWARDS: You know, the back in the days when Goldwater and Reagan was coming in as a Goldwater supporter. You know, when and I was there. And we were putting this modern conservative movement together. Nobody would have thought to ask any John Hagee what he thought about any of it. You know, it would simply not have been something we would have done. And for McCain, it's just like his meeting with Bush. For McCain, to allow himself now to be wrapped in the embrace of people like that, you know, I think is going to seriously damage him in the fall. Because he is undercutting the very image that he so carefully cultivated, you know, in the — I'm not sure which is real — because I'm not sure that his maverick image or his independent straight talk image was always completely accurate. And I attacked it from time to time.

But I think that he's making a serious mistake in terms of how he frames his persona for the general election. I don't think this country is ready for a continuation of Bush. And I don't think it's ready for a Hagee approved, Hagee-endorsed presidency. And why he's doing that, I don't know.

BILL MOYERS: At what stage do you think conservatives became Republicans first and conservatives second?

MATT WELCH: I think it was in the Richard Nixon presidency. Up until that moment, conservatives had been the biggest critics of the imperial presidency. They were the biggest critics of the way executive power was abuse by John F. Kennedy, by Lyndon Johnson, by FDR before them. They saw executive power as this as aggrandizement of power in the federal government that was used against individuals. But when Richard Nixon was abusing that power and he was attacked by the press, who conservatives have always hated, and Democrats, who the conservatives have always hated, they rallied around him. And there was a flipping that happened then.

Even since then — and Dick Cheney was a big part of it and Donald Rumsfeld, because they were there — in the Ford Administration, when the reformist Democratic Congress started passing these limits on executive power. Ever since then, restoring the power of the executive has been a fundamental part of modern Republicanism, which went totally against their traditions. And as part of that, John McCain actually one of the only philosophies that he elucidates in his book, his five books that he's written, is to restore executive power at the expense of Congress, especially when it comes to foreign policy and the making of war. It is basically the only interest that he shows in political philosophy in his books.

BILL MOYERS: What's your answer to your own question about what's— at what point—

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, you know, I agree with Matt, that that was a part of it. It certainly had an effect. But more than that, while I was in the House, Newt Gingrich sort of rose in power. And Newt decided that the purpose of the Republican in Congress was not to carry out the fundamental principles that they had originally believed in, but to defeat Democrats. That was all that mattered. And it became how do— it's always war Democrats versus Republicans, all the time. And when you look at it from that mindset, you have a Republican president — you know, he is not any more the head of a different branch of government. He's your team captain. He's your quarterback.

And so, Gingrich really created a system of nonstop warfare that went well beyond, you know, what the situation was with Nixon. And institutionalized it to an extent that today, when the Congress properly issues — tries to vote a contempt citation against two people on the White House staff, Harriet Myers and Josh Bolton, you know, who defy a Congressional subpoena, and Republicans in Congress walk out in protest, rather than engage in defending the branch of government that they're a part of. So, I put a lot of the blame right on Newt Gingrich. I think he led to a lot of this.

BILL MOYERS: But what about the emergence of the religious right? Each of us seem to be saying that the religious zeal of fanatical believers, allied to an aggressive, military state, has been a recipe for disaster. But that's what you're getting with the Bush-Cheney policy and the third term of the Bush-Cheney policy incarnated in John McCain.

MATT WELCH: But I would amend to that that I think that that power curve is on its wane. First, for the fact that McCain really isn't one of them, and hasn't been. Even though he has been very much sucking up to them since around 2004 and 2005, as an attempt to win the presidency. So he's making peace with Jerry Falwell and other people like that. But if you look at basically since Terry Schiavo, a lot of people tried to figure out when did the Republicans really lose their groove. Because the whole concept of limited government they threw out the window to do whatever it took to win elections. Mickey's completely right about that.

But part of it is the country woke up and saw — you know, Congress passing a special session to intervene in the life of one person. And at some point, it comes, what are you even talking about? And I think since then, there is not an appetite for such an aggressive, specifically sort of Christian conservative policy-making from the federal government. There's been a recoiling for that. And Republicans, their share is just increased — decreasing by the minute. And part of that is a revulsion against overstretch, I think, from the religious right. And I — you know, I respect the participation politics. We — thankfully, we have a really pluralistic tradition in this country. And, you know, religious blocs played key roles in the civil rights movement, in the abolition of slavery, in a lot of different areas, that have been beneficial to the country. Other areas that I would disagree with more, that are more associated with the Moral Majority. But I don't wake in fear of theocracy.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah. And I wanted to say— you know, I address this in the book. And I talk about the time, you know, it began with an attempt by conservatives to reach out to a public that was largely conservative in its traditional views. And said, well, how do you do this. And the answer came, well, you try to— they go to church. Let's try to reach them through the church. And you started with a multi-denominational organization, the Moral Majority.

You know, there were Jews and Christians, and you know, all kinds of — you know, involved in this. But it got supplanted by the overtly Christian Coalition, you know. And the Moral Majority was gone, and a much more aggressively narrow-- sectarian kind of a group arose. And got increasingly more powerful because— not by numbers. It's not numbers. It's that in Republican primaries, the most committed, the most zealous, show up to vote. And they are the ones who show up to vote. And that's how they began to have-- the neocons never had that kind of power at the grassroots. Theirs was at the top.

BILL MOYERS: With the elites?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Right. You know, but the—

BILL MOYERS: The elites, the media.

MICKEY EDWARDS: But the Christian Coalition, the religious right, got its strength by getting people who, in low turnout primaries, would go vote, and they would do the work in the campaign. And so, they began to have influence far beyond their numbers.

BILL MOYERS: My viewers are quite loyal to my guests. And they're going to be busy this weekend, not watching television, but reading MCCAIN: THE MYTH OF A MAVERICK, by Matt Welch, and RECLAIMING CONSERVATION: HOW A GREAT AMERICAN POLITICAL MOVEMENT GOT LOST, AND HOW IT CAN FIND ITS WAY BACK, by Mickey Edwards. Mickey and Matt, thank you both for being on THE JOURNAL

MICKEY EDWARDS: Thank you, Bill.

MATT WELCH: Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: And that's it for this week. I'll see you this time next week. I'm Bill Moyers.



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