Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Back to the Future; Why the Success of the Republican Party Rests on Reviving the Legacy of Teddy Roosevelt

The 20th Century produced two great Republican presidents who transformed the nation: Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and Teddy Roosevelt who was president during the first several years of the 20th Century. Reagan is someone I admired greatly. He was the first President I voted for and his vision of limited government inspired me to throw off the Democratic leanings of my parents to become a conservative Republican in my college years.

As the years pass, Republicans continue to hope that another Ronald Reagan is just around the corner. I have wished for the same thing, only to be sorely disappointed by every Republican presidential candidate who has run since Reagan. In the aftermath of the disastrous 2008 elections, Republicans are busy re-evaluating the party and what needs to be done to turn things around. Several Republicans have suggested that the GOP needs to return to the principles for which Reagan stood.

I think those who argue a return to Reagan-type politics are correct that President George Bush II's policies have strayed far from those limited government principles advocated by Reagan. What they are not right about is their argument that Reagan conservatism would sell in the early 21st Century or is what is needed at this point in history. Historians will tell you that great Presidents are those who provide the country exactly what it needs in a particular point in our nation's history. The calm presence of Washington was perfect for the country's early days. Lincoln's strong leadership was what the country needed in the Civil War. FDR's optimism was critical to the nation surviving the worst depression in our nation's history.

As much as President Reagan was the perfect President for the 1980s, Republicans would be wise to turn the pages of history back further to another great Republican President of the 20th Century, Teddy Roosevelt, as an example of what is needed today. TR was a man who fought tirelessly against entrenched business interests which then controlled the nation's economy in the form of trusts and other monopolies. He was a crusader against government corruption and took it on even when doing so stepped on the toes of fellow Republicans. TR did not get ahead bowing to the interests of party bosses and big money. He succeeded by pursuing reforms which, while not popular with powerful interests of the time, were enormously popular with the people. TR is the populist, reform-minded candidate model that Republicans should look for as they seek to find a winning formula.

While the challenges of today are slightly different than in TR's time, they demonstrate the need for a Teddy Roosevelt. In TR's day the issue was whether government should intervene to correct the concentration of wealth in a few large companies that dominated the economy. Today's challenge is that government has grown much larger than in Teddy's day and has become a tool to funnel taxpayer money to large powerful business interests that often kick back some of that money in the form of campaign contribution and other "benefits" to the government officials making the decisions on where the taxpayer money goes. Corporate welfare, as it is known, has grown to dominate much of government policies. Indianapolis is a perfect example of a community where policy development has become dominated by wealthy business interests and the taxpayers' interests are secondary at best. Private-public partnerships and privatization (which is a good idea horribly managed in practice) has become a tool to channel our tax dollars to big companies.

When government gets involved picking winners and losers, rewarded by our tax dollars, we have the makings of an inefficient economic system and a government that is ripe for corruption. We see an example of what happened in Illinois with the scandal surrounding Governor Rod Blagojevich and his pay-to-play schemes. What I find disheartening though is how people assume what the Illinois Governor did is that much different from what is going on in states and cities across the United States. Pay-to-play politics is the norm. The only difference between what Governor Blagojevich did and what is going on elsewhere is that Governor Blagojevich brazenly made transparent what everyone else in politics is smart enough to not mention out loud - that there is a quid pro quo when there is taxpayer money handed out to private business interests. Politicians expect something in return for the taxpayer dollars they send to big companies. Make no mistake about it.

If Teddy were around today he would have railed against the corruptive influence corporate welfare has has on government policy and how it has damaged free market competition so essential to the success of our capitalistic system. TR would have stood squarely for good government reforms that both parties thus far fiercely resisted. If the Republican Party wants a model for how to succeed in today's political environment, they might turn back the pages of history and study that other great Republican President of the 20th Century, Teddy Roosevelt.


Doug said...

I would certainly vote for a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. I have my doubts about whether such a politician could rise through the ranks of today's Republican Party. He wasn't well liked even by his day's Republican Party; having been put in the Vice Presidential slot by Mark Hannah to keep him out of the way, as I understand it.

As for Reagan, I think his ideas about small government were more talk than reality. Government didn't shrink much, if at all, under his watch and the deficits soared.

One thing Reagan and Roosevelt had in common was that they didn't come from political dynasties. (Though Teddy's dad was a lower level political operative and a scion of a business dynasty of sorts, I guess.) Contrast that to the Bushes - George W. son of President George H.W. son of Senator Prescott.

Both major parties would be well advised to avoid their dynastic tendencies. Both would, as you suggest, be well advised to look skeptically at programs that benefit entrenched interests. Both need to look pragmatically at what actions (or lack of action) benefit citizens most and not be overly concerned about ideological purity.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Well, Doug we are in agreement. I think you're right that the size of government did not shrink that much during Reagan's era. Actually it didn't shrink at all. But he did slow down the steadily increasing size of government which is an accomplishment.

I'm not sure though the power of the party leaders are any greater today than they were then. In fact, I would venture the guess that party bosses were in fact more powerful then. You are right though that the Republicans Old Guard tries to put down reformers. Here in Indy, Republicans in Mario County are now decidely in the minority. Yet they would rather lose elections than allow reform-minded Republicans to rise to the top.

Totally agree with your comment regarding dynastic tendencies. I say this as yet another Kennedy seeks elective office with the major qualification being her last name.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Doug, I would add that you make an excellent point about the cross appeal of a Teddy Roosevelt-type Republican. Republicans need to have candidates who will appeal across party lines.

Anonymous said...

I'll go with Mike Pence-

Paul K. Ogden said...

Rep. Mike Pence is a possibility, Anon. He seems willing to go in a new direction and has the creativity to be successful. There aren't many Republicans who are willing to take the roads that haven't been traveled yet, but that's what we need.

Mike Pence and I actually went to law school together. During my second year, I was editor of the law school newspaper and Mike was a cartoonist. He is an incredibly talented cartoonist. In fact in one of his cartoons he lampoons me when I, the end of my second year, was elected President of the law school Student Bar Association, the equivalent of president of the student body. I have the cartoon and will have to dig it out someday.

In the cartoon, Mike lampooned me as being power hungry and out of control. Okay, maybe he had a point about that...