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Is This What James Madison Had in Mind?

5 years ago
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MONTPELIER STATION, Va. -- It certainly wasn't this way in 1820. Watching the sun fall behind the mountains from the front porch of James Madison's Montpelier home, I am alone. In Madison's time, there was beauty but, I imagine, not much quiet at the bustling homestead.
A tour revealed the rest of the home of our fourth U.S. president (1809-1817), not refurnished and restored as the Monticello residence of Madison's friend and neighbor, Thomas Jefferson, but impressive in its unfinished state. The small-of-stature Madison even ceded the spotlight to his vivacious wife, Dolley. But the giant influence of the Founding Father called the Father of the Constitution and the architect of the Bill of Rights resonates.
It's the reason for the conference, "The Madisonian System and Modern America: Is It Broken, and Can We Fix It?" sponsored by the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier home and the Brookings Institution.
The ideas were interesting and provocative, as was the company of a small group of policy makers, academics and journalists, politicians and those who have worked for them. In the midst of today's political landscape of partisan bickering and fear of governmental gridlock, what would Madison think? Is there reason to fear, or is confrontation as legitimate as compromise?

As much as we'd like to think that the founders were above-it-all statesmen, they were politicians, and the 1790's were a "decade-long shouting match," William F. Connelly Jr., professor of politics at Washington and Lee, reminded us. Not that Madison was perfect or perfectly prescient, even to Connelly; our country's unresolved issues led to a civil war despite Madison's beloved Constitution and the political system the founders set in place.
Mickey Edwards, one of the program participants, knows about political battles. The longtime Republican Oklahoma congressman, now academic and author, last year laid out his philosophy in his book, "Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost -- And How It Can Find Its Way Back."
During a break, Edwards gave me his view on Madison seen through today's political landscape: "I don't think he envisioned parties the way they are today. You would naturally have a break between people who have different philosophies. But the idea that you would have clubs that would set aside principle, set aside preference of constituents, set aside all kinds of concerns in the pursuit of power for their organization; I don't think he envisioned that kind of political party."
"The best example of that was when George W. Bush starting accruing more power in the White House – some of it, in my view, unconstitutional. But rather than the Congress checking him, it was under the control of people in his party, and they saw their job as being loyal to somebody who belonged to the same club."
"What Madison talked about were factions. He talked about using factions to be able to check each other so that no one faction could dominate, but that didn't necessarily mean a political party because the difference is, factions shift."
Edwards is working on a book on how to erase the power of political parties, to "break the influence of the political parties in order to free up people who get elected to act more independently," he said. "You have to have political parties have less influence over their election, less influence over who gets to be on the ballot in November. One way to do that is to have nonpartisan congressional elections."
"I'm not a terribly good public speaker, but I can get an applause line every time just by saying that I'm so sick and tired of this battle between your club and my club."
While he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, he didn't necessarily believe he would support most of his policies. "It was a rejection of the alternatives."
"I endorsed him partly because I thought it was very important constitutionally to repudiate the Bush administration, and because I didn't feel, having served with John McCain," that he was "temperamentally suitable for president."
Now he thinks Obama is overreaching in some of the same ways – though not philosophically – that Ronald Reagan did in 1980 through 1982. He said Obama is misreading the election results to be an endorsement of a degree of liberalism that "I don't think the public meant to endorse."
Edwards, a former national chairman of the American Conservative Union and a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation, today directs the Aspen Institute-Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership program. "Every year I select 24 of the really top young political leaders in the country, all public officials, 12 Democrats and 12 Republicans. We bring them together and don't talk about health care or Iraq or any contemporary issue. We talk about principles, values; we talk about Plato and Aristotle; we talk about Confucius; we talk about John Locke and Madison and Hobbes. So we try to get people beyond their party identity to where they get used to working and discussing civilly and respectfully with people who belong to a different political party."
So it comes back to Madison, and – on the final day of the conference -- a walk with a field archaeologist tasked to sift through the family trash, dig in the ground and piece together broken pieces of plates and history. Even here, though, contemporary values shape the work. Care is taken while uncovering the living quarters of Madison's slaves; today their cemetery is revered as sacred ground.
James Madison's Montpelier -- an unfinished work in progress – is the perfect place to consider the issues of American governance that are still argued and fought over.
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