Progs: McCain is not one of us

Collectivists defend a cherished brand-name

John McCain has long sought to identify himself with Theodore Roosevelt. In a New York Times story last week, 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 an progressive historian, I feel like saying to McCain something like what Lloyd Bentsen said to Dan Quayle in a vice presidential debate in 1988 when Quayle tried to compare himself to John F. Kennedy: I knew TR and believe me you are no TR.

The only real comparison between TR and McCain that can be made is that both identified strongly with militarism, both sought military glory, and both in all probability preferred military rather than diplomatic solutions to international conflicts.

Historians with a bent toward psychology have contended that, for Roosevelt, his militarism derived from the embarrassing fact that his father paid for a substitute to avoid the draft during the Civil War, which wealthy men could do for $300. 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 II.

McCain and TR were also big blusterers who often got into public conflicts with the 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 Republicans have sought to restore since the Reagan presidency.

Using an ideology of social service and stewardship, Roosevelt also identified 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. This was a time, long since gone, when there was a large progressive wing in the Republican Party, the majority party of the country. Still the levers of power were clearly in the hands of the conservatives.

TR 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 progressive legislation and refusing to give the machine the patronage it wanted as governor of New York.

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's ask what actions McCain would put 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, even though the law was considered 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 refused to use force to break a strike and had used its influence to compel employers to negotiate. Will McCain act to strengthen collective bargaining 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? How about rescinding his hero, Ronald Reagan's 1981 federal employment blacklist of members of the air traffic controllers? How about support the rights of workers to join or organize unions by supporting the Employee Free Choice Act? Don't hold your breath.

Theodore Roosevelt was the most important environmentalist in US history, up to that time, fighting against the conservative leaders of his own party to place millions of acres of 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.

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. He is the kind of Republican who kept Roosevelt from winning the 1912 GOP nomination over incumbent 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 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.

- Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.


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