There's a time and place for all styles in politics.
Take Bob Edgar. A former U.S. Congressman (1974-1986)—the first Democrat elected from his arch-conservative Pennsylvania district since 1868—and current president of the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, Edgar has the button-down look and manner of a Methodist minister (which he is). Moderate to a fault, and energetically nonpartisan, even (holy cow!) bipartisan, he disarms his political opponents with civility and restraint. Which makes what he says, beneath the politesse, hit even harder.
He pulls no punches, for example, when it comes to White House crimes.
"We want oversight of executive branch abuse of power," he says, smiling benignly behind the biting words. "Bush's use of signing statements and fear as an organizational tool is unprecedented and abusive, but Congress could have shut the war down by simply denying him the funds. Personally, I would have been for impeachment."
Edgar was there the last time the Congress cut the funds for a war. He was on the floor of the House when the plug-pulling vote was made to end the Vietnam War on April 25, 1975. Prior to that pivotal vote, he reminds people, President Ford was being furiously lobbied by two aides to send another 25,000 troops to Vietnam after 12 years of fighting and 57,000 dead American soldiers. A surge, if you will.
"A photograph in the White House archive shows the two advisors standing next to Ford's desk in the Oval Office," Edgar says, as if anticipating the punchline of an old and sick joke. "These two were Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld."
While vitriolic left- or right-wingers rage at the dawning of all political lights, Common Cause—devoted to "holding power accountable"—takes its cue from Edgar and applies a more measured approach. The group is fighting for media reform (e.g., no to consolidation, yes to keeping the Internet an open forum), clean elections (including electing the president with the national popular vote) and campaign finance reform.
The steady approach has been effective. In fact, Edgar was in Hartford this week to celebrate another Common Cause victory, with Connecticut's recent passage of the nation's most stringent campaign finance reform legislation.
"This new bill is a good virus that needs to spread because money has so invaded the political process in America," Edgar explains. "When I was a Congressman, if I wasn't giving speeches, I was on the phone begging people for money. It's worse now. We have to elect more good government people, people who believe governance is a calling. We want them serving the public interest, not the private interest."
To demonstrate that he aims to take the high road in his Common Cause tenure, Edgar's first act upon being sworn in was to name former Republican Rep. Jim Leach chairman of the board.
"Jim and I joke that there ought to be a section of every zoo inside which sits the endangered species known as Moderate Republican," he says. "Gingrich moved the party to the right with a vengeance and the neo-cons moved it another mile and a half to the right under Bush. The Democrats moved in to take that middle ground, except that what was once deemed liberal is the new middle ground."
Edgar knows about profound shifts in political fortunes, having first been elected as a "Watergate baby" in 1974. He sees similarities between 1974 and 2008.
"There was an unpopular war in Vietnam like the one in Iraq, energy issues with long lines at the gas stations. The Watergate scandal has echoes in the Abramoff/DeLay scandal. &Seventy-five Democrats and only 19 Republicans were elected that year to Congress."
Despite the potential for a major shift, Edgar is taking a wait-and-see tack: "No matter how it plays out, the question is, will the new Congress address what we need?"
For more information, go to www.commoncause.org.