I had written on the subject of Teddy Roosevelt before:
Back to the Future: Why the Success of the Republican Party Rests on Reviving the Legacy of Teddy Roosevelt (12/16/2008)
One of the audience members rightfully pointed out a problem of the Teddy Roosevelt legacy that I would not approve - namely an overall expansion of the power of the federal government. I also noted that I would also not approve of TR's interventionist foreign policy. However, from a historical perspective, the times today are similar to the times back then. TR did a lot of things right when confronted with a monopolistic economy and a corrupt political system. As I noted previously in my 12/16/2008 post:
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 we look back in history for role models for the future, we shouldn't endeavor to copy 100% of what our political heroes did. Even the great Ronald Reagan, rightfully revered by my fellow Republicans, was not perfect. Whether it is Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, etc., let's use what they did that worked and discard what didn't work.
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 have 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.
Returning though to the premise of this piece, the times call for a Teddy Roosevelt style populist reformer, a Republican who will tackle the monopolistic economic system (remember the "too big to fail" companies?) that has sprung up and which dominates the political process leading to the current taxpayer bailouts. We need a GOP reformer who is willing to take on the new welfare - welfare for the rich - even though it is the rich who generally patronizes the Republican Party. We need someone who will not back away from going after corruption, of either party, and who will advocate for a more ethical and accountable government.
While that GOP reformer is spoken in a singular, we Republicans need these Teddy Roosevelt style reformers at every level of government. We need to recapture the populist part of the being a Republican. The way to do that is by revisiting the legacy of the great reformer, Teddy Roosevelt, and the battles he waged at the nation entered the 20th century. TR provides the blueprint for Republican success in 2009 and for decades to come.