As is usual these days, there is a long subtitle to this book which explains what it is about: "How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost--and How It Can Find Its Way Back".
Edwards has impeccable conservative credentials. He was part of Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, he was a national chairman of the American Conservative Union, he was one of the founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation, and while in Congress he was chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.
Edwards documents in excruciating and painful detail how the conservative movement completely lost its way during the George W. Bush presidency. All important conservative principles were simply forgotten in the zeal to support Bush and to attack the Democrats.
It is useful to examine how Edwards defines "conservatism". He says that in Europe prior to the American revolution, conservatives were those who supported the ruling monarchy. However, in the American context, with our entirely new and radical idea that government is the servant of the people, and not the master, the conservative is the person who wants to preserve the system of checks and balances and limitations on power as set out in our constitution. It is this system of checks and balance and limitations on power which have become completely forgotten by those who call themselves "conservatives" in the 21st century.
Edwards says that "At its core, conservatism embraces a philosophy of freedom. More libertarian than prescriptive, it is inherently protective of individual rights and resistant to concentrated power." What the conservatives of today have lost sight of is that "there is a profound difference between being bothered by the behavior of another and legally prohibiting it". Thus, we see alleged "conservatives" seeking to impose their views on many social issues on the whole of society, in flagrant disregard of the constitution which provides freedom of religion and freedom from religion. They seek to prohibit women from having an abortion, even though this is absolutely no business of the government. They seek to bar gays from marrying. They seek to criminalize flag-burning. In the aftermath of 9/11, they sought to take away our civil liberties in many different ways, all of them contrary to the constitution, which is designed to protect the rights of minority groups from the tyranny of the majority.
Conservatives traditionally, according to Edwards, were the party of prudence and peace. Yet, in the George W. Bush era, they completely abandoned their principles and gave Bush carte blanche to make war on countries which had not attacked us, thereby abandoning the constitutional principle that only Congress can declare war, and abandoning the conservative principle that we should be reluctant warriors.
Similarly, in the area of criminal law, the alleged "conservatives" have advocated for harsh imprisonment, for capital punishment, and for procedures in the pursuit of these goals which undermine liberty for all of us. One of the few true conservatives left, George Will, captured the essence of conservatism when he wrote, "Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order".
Conservatives started losing their way in the Reagan administration, an example being when Robert Bork was nominated. Bork claimed to be a conservative, and had the support of conservatives, yet his testimony on the Supreme Court cases enunciating a right of privacy was totally off-base. Bork said the decisions were wrong because there is no right of privacy set out in the constitution. In other words, for Bork if the right isn't spelled out, it doesn't exist. Edwards says this is exactly backwards; the 9th and 10th Amendments clearly state that all rights not specifically granted to the federal government remain with the states and the people. The true conservative position recognizes this reality and seeks to expand liberty for all people, and limit the government from infringing on that liberty.
Another example, even more outrageous, is when AG Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate in 2007, and made the incredible statement that "There is no express grant of habeas corpus in the constitution; there is a prohibition against taking it away". Gonzales was surely the most inept person ever to serve as our AG, and is a prime example of how low things sank in this country under W. And the so-called conservatives in Congress simply sat back and played the role of cheerleaders for the administration, instead of fulfilling their constitutional duties as watchdog over the executive branch.
For Edwards, the key to reclaiming conservatism lies in embracing the concept that "The pursuit of conservative principles has been severely compromised by three superseding allegiances: to president (when the president is of the same political party), to party, and to religious identity". Edwards observes that the pollution of the conservative movement with religious ideas began after George Wallace supporters drifted into the Republican Party following Wallace's runs for the presidency in 1968 and 1972. These people were determined to foist their own religious views on everybody else, and the party has been in the toilet ever since.
The emphasis on party reached its zenith under Newt Gingrich in the 1990's. Under Gingrich, anything Democratic was demonized, and the politics of personal destruction grotesquely manifested itself, as illustrated by the profound hatred shown to President Clinton. What was important was no longer principles, but opposition to the other party.
The hypocrisy of so-called conservatives was evident during the George W. Bush presidency, when the right stood idly by and watched as Bush violated every conservative principle there is. Conservatives were passive supporters of the ballooning of the federal deficit, of irresponsible tax cuts, of profligate spending on foreign wars against countries which had not attacked us, and on and on.
This book was published in 2008. And has anything improved since then? To the contrary, things have gotten worse, if that is possible. The right has demonized President Obama, regularly calling him a socialist, a Muslim, and on and on. We have Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell saying that "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Nothing about achieving conservative policy goals. In fact, it is unclear if there even is any such thing as a "conservative policy goal" anymore. The main goal in life for these people seems to be opposition to anything Obama or Congressional Democrats propose.
Just this month we have the news that Republican Senators have sent a letter to Iran telling Iran to be forewarned that any agreement it makes with the Obama administration may not last after 2016! We have house speaker Boehner unable to deliver a vote to fund the government; these right-wing loonies are more committed to shutting down the government than they are to actually governing. This is how low things have sunk.
So, is the term "conservative" even of any use anymore? Should we instead substitute the term "libertarian? This is a legitimate question which deserves analysis. I see libertarianism as a three-legged stool. One leg is noninterference in the personal lives of citizens, a second is noninterference in the economic lives of citizens, and the third is noninterference in the internal affairs of other sovereign countries. Edwards would say that the difference between the libertarians and conservatives is on the third leg; conservatives believe in a strong national defense, for the purpose of discouraging aggressive actions by other countries. The conservative is a "reluctant warrior", using military action as only a last resort, but he does not preclude the possibility of using force and he advocates maintaining a strong military for the purpose of discouraging military adventures on the part of other countries.
Personally my dispute with libertarianism is on the second leg of the stool. If the government had not taken action to encourage economic fairness in the lives of its citizens, we would be much worse off today. Just think of the situation in the 19th century, and how much better things are now. It has been liberals who have provided us with child labor laws, workers comp laws, workplace safety laws, the right to unionize, the 40-hour work week, anti-trust laws, food safety laws, and on and on. All of these have made this a better country.
I would side with the libertarian philosophy on the third leg. Where conservatives are quite happy to squander our national treasure on a bloated and unnecessary military, I see that we do more harm to our national interest than good by interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. Do we really have to have a military presence in 150 other sovereign countries? Any other problem has conservatives whining that "you can't solve the problem by throwing money at it". However, the conservatives seem quite happy to throw money right and left at the military, even to the absurd extent of funding weapons systems which the Pentagon itself says it does not need and does not want.
Unfortunately, Edwards remains a voice crying in the wilderness. Until there appear on the scene people of principle and strong personal character, people, that is, like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, I'm afraid that the political scene will remain as polluted and distasteful as it is today.