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E.J. Dionne and Mickey Edwards: A Bipartisan Exchange

Today we are proud to bring you E.J. Dionne, Jr. (who just published Souled Out) in conversation with Mickey Edwards(frequent OUPblog contributor and author of Reclaiming Conservatism). This is the first part of the series which will we be publishing all week, so be sure to come back and check our bipartisan exchange.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right, which was published in January by Princeton University Press.

Mickey Edwards is a former Republican Congressman, founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation, and national chairman of the American Conservative Union. He is the author of Reclaiming Conservatism: How A Great American Political Movement Got Lost- and How It Can Find It Way Back.

Email One

Dear Mickey,

Congratulations on your new book. Conservatives need to do a lot of rethinking, and they should count themselves lucky that someone as smart, honest and thoughtful as you are has begun the task of intellectual reconstruction. Not that they will all praise you, but I’m sure you are not worried about that. The hardest stage in recovery is that old first step: “First, admit you have a problem.” You are pushing your side to take that step.

I’m going to toss you a few assertions that I believe are true, and that you probably don’t. My own view is that conservatism is suffering from deep and fundamental flaws and that rethinking the old doctrine is not enough. Restoring the old purity will not save conservatism. Conservatism has great trouble addressing the problems that ail us because those problems require substantial public action, including action by government.

For example: Just a few years ago, the prevailing view held that national action for universal health insurance coverage was politically impossible. Now, pressure for comprehensive health-care reform is broad and deep, arising from business people and moderates, not just from traditional liberals. Economic populism is no longer marginal or antique. Frustration over growing economic inequalities, excessive compensation for executives, the privileged role of hedge funds and the disruptions caused by globalization are mainstream concerns. The fed had to intervene big time recently to bail out Wall Street. Whatever happened to laissez-faire?

Supply-siders asserted that cutting taxes on the wealthy — and especially on savings and investment — would help everyone, including the poor, by promoting economic growth. Tax cuts would produce so much growth that they would pay for themselves. Since government programs were flawed, private investment was always more productive than government spending. And deficits, if they did come, need not worry us very much. For many of us, this whole argument was always a highfalutin rationalization for giving the rich what they wanted, and often even more. Bill Clinton’s economic policies should have definitively destroyed supply-side claims: Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy and cut the deficit, and an exceptional period of economic growth followed. Now, we have gone back to supply-side economics and we have both a big deficit and an economic downturn.

And I haven’t even mentioned foreign policy or Iraq.

So, Mickey, I’d like you to explain why I am wrong about all this and why conservatism still deserves to be in power. I look forward our exchanges.

Warmest wishes,

E.J. Dionne


Hi, E.J.

Thanks for the kind words. The book is getting a good response and I’m hopeful that it lead some in my party to a new appreciation for the constitutional principles that were once so fundamental to our politics.

Your assertion that conservatism may be incapable of addressing great national problems “because those problems require substantial public action” presupposes that a belief in constitutional limits on government authority precludes any government action at all. The Constitution, however, provides us with both empowerment and constraint. The constraints are obvious — authority is divided and individual rights are protected. But the people are empowered to create a representative legislature with the authority to determine the nation’s taxing and spending priorities. There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits the people from deciding to create a collective response to widespread national concerns.

So if the constitutional objections to government action can be set aside, we are left with the question of political philosophy. Conservatives generally favor — and I favor — a government that does not impose such a high rate of taxation that the citizen’s ability to invest, save for the future, or pass on benefits to survivors would be severely curtailed. Conservatives generally favor — and I favor — a willingness by government to encourage private-sector responses to problems so long as such a policy is feasible. Electricity, telephones, air travel, automobiles, open-heart surgery, book clubs, apple orchards, hotels, hospitals, universities, and indeed most of the beneficial social, cultural, and economic benefits of modern life have come through the innovative responses of the private sector, not the interventions of the federal government. That said, there are many instances in which government support has played a vital role in the development of important industries: farm subsidies (while now excessive and often unnecessary) kept farmers from being forced into bankruptcy; federal funding has provided invaluable assistance to the pharmaceutical industry; much important university research is supported by federal grants. It would be wrong for conservatives to adopt a knee-jerk negative response to tax proposals or spending initatives. And it would be wrong for others — liberals, progressives — to automatically assume that government is the answer to all problems: some require comprehensive national responses and some do not. Because government responses increase the taxes citizens must pay and often impose new laws to be obeyed and regulations to be followed, non-government solutions are preferable if capable of sufficiently addressing the problem.

It is interesting to “compare and contrast” the arguments of two great political theorists. Hobbes argued that the nature of man required the intervention of government to protect the weak from the strong. Madison agreed that “if men were angels” governments would not be needed, but since they were not (he concurred with Hobbes), governments were needed. What Madison foresaw, however, was that those governments, too, would be made up of men with the same flaws as other men, and it was therefore necessary to constrain them as well, not only by dividing power but by setting limits on what they could collectively do. This is why our system not only protects against the abuse of power by both the President and the Congress, but by the people themselves, placing large areas outside the scope of federal authority and thus making it impossible for an abusive majority to impose its will on that smaller number who may be in a different position.

I don’t mean to go on about general philosophy, E. J., but only to argue that while there is a legitimate case to be made for collective national action, not violative of the Constitution and of benefit to the citizenry, there is also a case to be made for caution in supposing that all problems of a large nature require uniform federal solutions. Neither extreme is without fault.

I agree with you completely that some of the compensation packages in private industry are outrageous and believe true conservatives would have strongly opposed rescuing financial firms from their own greed.

I’d point out that disruptions caused by globalization are traceable, at least in part, to government actions which have fueled the emergence of a globalized economy. Years ago, when I was teaching at Harvard, I wrote a paper warning that globalization would impinge on national sovereignty by confronting American legislators with situations in which resistance to schemes devised elsewhere would carry such a high price in lost trade opportunities that our ability to choose freely between support and resistance would be severely compromised.

In economics, as in almost everything else, the current Administration has been hopelessly incompetent. It’s true that deficits have mushroomed but it was the conservative belief that reducing taxes and reducing federal spending would result in economic growth and thus in a reduced federal deficit; reducing taxes without reducing spending — reducing taxes, in fact, while engaging in a multi-billion-dollar military campaign — is the very opposite of a conservative approach and only a fool could have failed to see the deficits that would result. I certainly hope you will not judge the validity of conservative principles by the decisions made by the current occupant of the White House who, in almost every conceivable way (disregard for the Constitution, lack of prudence, unwillingness to match expenditures with available resources) is as far from true conservatism as it is possible to imagine.

So where do we go from here, E.J.? How do we find the areas of common ground that will allow us to both address the problems you correctly identify and remain within the framework of limited government that has so well protected our freedoms for more than two centuries? You want to solve broad-scope national problems and so do I. You want to preserve a governmental structure that serves, but does not oppress, the citizen; so do I. What now?

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