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Mickey Edwards Urges Congress, Before Party Affiliation Be ‘an American First’

August 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Mickey Edwards, former Republican congressman, rails against political division in Washington in his new book, "The Parties Versus the People." Edwards talks to Judy Woodruff about his suggestions to reform party hostility and create "one congress serving one country."
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: And we continue our series of book conversations exploring ways to bridge ideological divides in Washington.

Judy Woodruff has that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Has bitter partisanship been seeping into our political culture?

Well, that’s what former congressman Mickey Edwards thinks. The Republican served 16 years in the House representing the Fifth District of Oklahoma. In his new book, “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans,” Edwards outlines a shift he witnessed while in Washington. He also shares his ideas for solving the problem.

Edwards, the vice president of the Aspen Institute, joins us now.

And, Mickey Edwards, it’s good to have you with us.

MICKEY EDWARDS, author, “The Parties Versus the People”: Good to see you again, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you start out by asking what would happen if the dead could have nightmares.

(LAUGHTER)

MICKEY EDWARDS: You’re right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were thinking of a particular founding father?

MICKEY EDWARDS: I was thinking of four of them.

You know, the one thing that George Washington, John Adams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson all agreed on was don’t create political parties. And the parties they had in that day were things where a few people got together on three issues, four issues, five issues, but not like what we have today, permanent factions, Republicans, Democrats always on opposite sides. and the founders all warned against that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what you write here is that the real culprits are the parties.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you describe them as private clubs. What has happened to the parties?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, what happens is they over time got to be where they’re in control of who gets to be on the ballot. So they have closed party primaries, where a small segment of the electorate gets to decide who is the most pure candidate they have got.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In each state.

MICKEY EDWARDS: In each state.

And then what happens is, because of sore loser laws that they got passed in most states, the person who lost the primary can’t be on the ballot in November, even though that may be the choice of most of the voters in the state. And so you end up with candidates who are not really representative. There are hard-liners, non-compromisers, and they’re the people that eventually go to Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you write about the problem being with the elections, but you also write about the problem in the Congress and even in the White House.

MICKEY EDWARDS: It’s in both of them.

But it’s also even — one of the things, the state legislatures control congressional districts through the parties. And so, I’m a city guy, you know, from Oklahoma City. I ended up representing wheat farmers and cattle ranchers. I couldn’t be an articulate voice for them because the parties, for their own advantage, drew these district lines.

You get to Washington and you get sworn in as a member of Congress, and the American Congress, the United States Congress.

But you’re told in order to get a committee assignment that you have to promise you’re going to stick with the party line in order for us to put you on that — and so, nobody wants to compromise. Nobody wants to listen to ideas that didn’t come from their own club.

And that’s why we have stalemate on everything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is one party more guilty than the other?

MICKEY EDWARDS: I think they’re both guilty.

You know, it may be a matter of degree, one more than another, but, you know, whether it’s a Republican leader or a Democratic leader in the House or the Senate, they have all said outrageous things. You know, we won the election. We will write the bills or it’s our job to defeat the other guy or to elect more of our team.

So, both parties are doing it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you lay out some pretty far-reaching recommendations for what to do about this.

MICKEY EDWARDS: I do. I do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But talk about what you — how you would change elections.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, what you have got to do is let the people be in charge again.

And so, for example, California state, Washington State, you know, have taken the closed party primaries off the ballot. And they have created open primaries, where every candidate who wants to run, and qualifies to run, can vote on — can be on the same ballot, and every single registered voter in the state can vote among — choose all of those people, whoever they want, made nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

You know, 24 states have in their state constitution initiative petitions. The people can take charge. They can get the signatures, put it on the ballot and they can break the system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying do away with primaries?

MICKEY EDWARDS: No, do away with closed primaries.

You have primaries so a number of people can run. You know, but at the end of it, everybody in the state gets to choose. And in the end, you have got two who — if you have two finishers, they could be in the same party. It doesn’t matter. They have to appeal to the entire electorate in order to get elected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also recommend, Mickey Edwards, changes in the way Congress operates. Talk about a few of those things.

MICKEY EDWARDS: It’s amazing that when you are elected, you find yourself — there’s a separate lectern for Democrats and for Republicans. There’s a separate cloakroom to go make phone calls or read the newspaper for Democrats and Republicans.

It’s all divided as though you were two separate countries. So, if you take away from the leadership the ability to decide who gets to sit on what committees, you could break that power.

If you rearrange the furniture, where everybody sits together like we’re one Congress, serving one country, and break this idea that from the first moment you’re sworn in, your job is to beat the other guys. We have got to change that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you served, as we said, in Congress for 16 years.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you really believe these political parties are prepared to give up that much power…

MICKEY EDWARDS: No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … to do the kind of thing you are talking about?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Judy, they’re not at all prepared.

(LAUGHTER)

MICKEY EDWARDS: That’s why you have to do two things. You have to have the people in the states change the rules, get rid of the closed primaries, get rid of the closed partisan redistricting.

But also when your congressman shows up and he says, this is the way we do things, you as a voter have to say, no, you’re going to change that, or we’re going to change who represents us.

You know, we’re tired of party against party. We want you to support — a member of Congress — the speaker of the House doesn’t have to be a member of the Congress.

You know, you can have a nonpartisan speaker. You can have nonpartisan committee staff. And the people have to demand that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying you would have to change who is in Congress right now in order to do those things?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, you either have to change it or you have to force people — look what’s happened in these elections.

The voters have a lot of power. And if they say — Judy, if you are in Congress, and they say, Judy, if you continue to support this party vs. party system, we’re going to get rid of you and we’re going to get somebody who wants to be an American first, not a Republican first or a Democrat first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what’s the incentive for them to give up the power that they have?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, the only incentive — look, the incentive system works.

And right now, everybody who is sitting in Congress knows, if they compromise, if they talk to somebody who agrees with their own party, but not to yours, they won’t listen to you, they won’t talk to you, what happens is, you know, if you start compromising, you will get knocked off in your primary.

We have to take away that incentive. We have got to create incentives for civility, incentives for compromise, incentives to listen to each other and to sit down together. Any organization that you are in, any association that you are in, you don’t divide into rival clubs. You sit down together and try to solve the problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you still consider yourself a Republican?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Sure. I’m not anti-party.

What I’m against is the parties having the ability to control who is on the ballot or what the districts look like and so forth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what’s at stake? If these kinds of things don’t happen, what could — I mean, what are we looking at in this country?

MICKEY EDWARDS: There are over 300 million of us of all different backgrounds, experiences.

If we’re going to repair our bridges, if we’re going to fund our military, if we’re going to decide how to create jobs, if we’re going to nominate and elect people to the Supreme Court, if we’re going to do all the things that the Constitution says that we legitimately can do as a country, as a single country, we have to be able to have a Congress where people will talk together, just like our founding fathers did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mickey Edwards, a former member of Congress, now with the Aspen Institute, thanks very much.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Thanks, Judy. Good to see you.