My Decade of Loss

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Looking back at a significant period of time - a century, a decade - the tendency is to get all Olympian about it, gazing down majestically from the clouds and assessing change, growth, loss -- or if you're of a more sociological bent, trends - with an all-capital-letters kind of PERSPECTIVE.  This is why we label passages of time with such names as "The Era of Good Feelings", usually misconstrued by subsequent generations but helpful to textbook writers in providing convenient chapter headings.   The passage of time often brings great change, of course, on scales large and small, change that affects us collectively, both emotionally (the attacks of September 11, 2001) and corporeally (we undress at airports and buy "green" non-plastic bags in which to tote groceries from the checkout counter to the kitchen).     

But the passage of time is not merely a collective experience; it is personal as well.  One makes New Year's Resolutions not to adapt to a changing world but to reflect on how our individual lives have changed, or failed to change, in a positive direction.  We write in diaries not of revolutionary cycles in Tehran but of our weight gains, our evolving relationships, our gains or losses on the job front.  The real measurement of time's effect is not merely on the community but equally, and perhaps more so, on the self.   And a part of that cold glare in the mirror is the unblinking recalibration of who we think we are and where we belong and what we think we think.

We have anchors: our personal relationships, of course, family, friends, and colleagues, but also our politics, our religious beliefs, the worldview we carry with us and that gives us a sense of knowing where we fit on the various graphs and pie charts by which we are measured.  When a decade unravels that sense of knowing in which hole one's peg of being belongs, it is that, not who won what election or which film drew the biggest box office that gives the decade its definition.   The years from 2000 through 2009 were my decade of loss.

On January 1, 2000, I was a conservative Republican and I knew what that term, and that party affiliation, meant, and I was comfortable in knowing that it was a shared identity.  I volunteered to help George W. Bush in his campaign for President.  I was teaching at Harvard then, but had previously been not only a member of the House Republican leadership but, in addition, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations committee's subcommittee on foreign operations.   So I was asked to draft my thoughts on how the campaign and a subsequent Bush presidency ought to look at the role of foreign assistance in the foreign policy and national security apparatus.   I had co-chaired a joint task force on just that subject for the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, so I agreed to do it.  It was a modest contribution, but I felt part of the Bush team and in November that year, I voted for him.   No reinvention here: I did not vote for him reluctantly; I did so with some enthusiasm.  I had been close to Ronald Reagan and supported him against George W.'s father, but had later developed a good relationship with the senior Bush as well, had traveled with Jeb Bush, and although my only meeting with W (during his father's presidency) had left me decidedly unimpressed, I was pleased by his emphasis on the "compassionate" elements of the conservative's approach to politics.   So, no, I didn't hold my nose to vote for him; I was comfortable in doing so.

Four years later, I did not vote for his re-election.  I could not bring myself to vote for John Kerry, but for the first time in my memory, I went to the polls, marked ballots for candidates (mostly Republicans), and left the presidential line blank.  And four years after that, unimpressed by John McCain (I had thought him a bit of a phony when we served in the House together) and determined to repudiate the Bush presidency (guilt feelings for having supported him eight years before?), I announced to friends that I was supporting Barack Obama.

This may seem a minor thing - a good many Republicans supported Obama - but it was not a minor thing for me.  I admired Obama's "cool", his thoughtful approach, but not his politics.  I am no liberal.  I had not morphed into a lefty.  But now, having been national chairman of the American Conservative Union, chairman of the nationwide Conservative Political Action Conference, a founder of the Heritage Foundation, national vice chairman of the Young Republicans, a co-chairman of a platform subcommittee at the national convention that nominated Ronald Reagan for President, the director of the Reagan campaign's policy task forces, and a senior member of the Republican leadership in Congress, I was not merely supporting  a candidate of the other party, I was deliberately repudiating not a momentary affiliation but a lifelong allegiance.

There was a corollary: in the previous paragraph, I have conflated conservatism and the Republican Party, but they are not the same.  In fact, we conservatives had long claimed that we were Republicans only because, given the nature of our system, affiliation with a political party offered the best chance of seeing our views prevail at a national level.   Given the platforms of the two dominant parties, the GOP seemed the better option.  But during this decade now ending, I found myself repudiating the Republican Party without becoming a Democrat and, simultaneously, repudiating what the conservative movement, in which I had held numerous positions of leadership, had become.  

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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