Sunday, July 13, 2008

John McCain and Theodore Roosevelt

by Norman Markowitz

In research I did about John McCain for a PA article months ago, I discovered that he has long sought to identify himself with Theodore Roosevelt. In a New York Times story today, he repeated that identification, portraying himself as a "conservative" Republican like TR who disagrees with his fellow conservative Republicans about the role of government.

As a historian of U.S. Political History, I feel like saying to McCain what Dan Quayle opponent for the Vice Presidency in 1988 said to him when he tried to compare himself to John Kennedy: I knew John Kennedy and believe me you are no John Kennedy,

The only real comparison between TR and McCain that can be made is that both identified very strongly with military values, both sought military glory, and both in all probability preferred military rather than diplomatic solutions to international conflicts. For Roosevelt, historians with a bent toward psychology have contended that this had much to do with the fact that he father bought a substitute(rich men could do that for $300) to get out of serving in the Civil War. For McCain, it may have something to do with the fact that his grandfather and father were admirals, the former a naval hero or World War IIMcCain and TR were also big blusterers who often got into public conflicts with the party bosses of the Republican party.

But the comparison really ends there. TR began in the 1880s as a New York State assemblyman who sponsored pioneering legislation to regulate the production of cigars in New York tenement buildings (the legislation was declared unconstitutional by the New York State Supreme Court, using "freedom of contract arguments that the judiciary sustained until the New Deal and which the Republican Right has sought to restore since the Reagan presidency.

Roosevelt also identified, using an ideology of social service and stewardship, with the immigrant poor and labor(even though he always contended that social reforms were necessary to make sure that labor and the poor did not fall into the hands of radicals and socialists).At a time when there was a large progressive wing in the Republican party, the majority party of the country (even though the levers of power were clearly in the hands of the conservatives) Theodore Roosevelt was a leading progressive, who was put on the 1900 ticket in large part because he had alienated Tom Platt, the powerful boss of the New York Republican machine, by supporting as Governor of New York progressive legislation and refusing to give the machine the patronage it wanted.

John McCain's conflicts with conservative party bosses have not been on principle but on personality.

Rather than continue this history lesson by simply citing the differences let me ask McCain if he would put actions forward as president along with his talk.

One of Theodore Roosevelt's first acts as president was to use the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against the Northern Securities Company, a holding company railroad monopoly controlled by J. P. Morgan. The Act, was largely a dead letter. Will McCain use anti-Trust legislation against the oil companies, the medical insurance companies, and others who collude to sustain and increase profits against the public interest? Will he take anti-trust legislation, which Republican administrations have avoided like Anthrax, to a new level, as Theodore Roosevelt did?

Theodore Roosevelt also intervened in a national coal strike without busting the union. This was the first time the federal government had both not used force to break a strike and had used its influence to compel employers to negotiate. Will McCain act to strengthen collective bargaining (how about rescinding his hero, Ronald Reagan's 1981 federal employment blacklist of members of the air traffic controllers) and send a signal to employers that his administration will use the NLRB and the department of labor to foster fair union settlements, not to protect their interest?

Theodore Roosevelt was the most importantly environmentalist in U.S. history, up to that time, fighting against the conservative leaders of his own party to place millions of acres of U.S. land into national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Given McCain's environmental stands on oil drilling and everything else, expecting him to emulate Theodore Roosevelt's environmental policies is a little bit like expecting George W Bush to enact a national health program.

On domestic questions, John McCain is an "old guard," "stand pat" Republican (the terms used in the early 20th century) of the kind that Theodore Roosevelt both fought and negotiated with as president, and the kind of Republican who kept Roosevelt from winning the 1912 GOP nomination over encumbant conservative President William Howard Taft, his former protegee, whom he had decisively and overwhelmingly defeated in Republican primaries. Roosevelt then led a third party, the Progressive Party, which had the unintended consequence of turning the machinery of the national Republican Party over to conservatives (they have controlled that machinery now for nearly a century, although the meaning of conservative in U.S. politics has moved further and further to the right and today there is no progressive wing of any kind that any rational observer could find in the Republican party).

Theodore Roosevelt tried to move the Presidency and the Republican party away from the conservatives and reactionaries whom John McCain represents today. McCain may gain some emotional satisfaction by vicariously identifying with TR. But, in reality, he has as much to do with Theodore Roosevelt as his real role model, Ronald Reagan, had to do with Franklin Roosevelt.