Presidential candidates from both parties always attempt to seize the mantle of former party luminaries. Voters are bombarded with questions like “Who is the next Ronald Reagan?” and “Who is the true heir to JFK’s legacy?” Obviously, a lot of this rhetorical exercise is about rallying the party faithful. However, some of these questions speak to the style and policies that a presidential contender might bring to office. If the discussion is about a certain approach that Republican presidential contenders might consider taking, then Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president, is worth consideration.
TR was part of the Progressive Movement of late-19th and early-20th centuries. Unfortunately, the Left has been successful in appropriating this movement and revising history to make it about redistribution of wealth. In reality, the movement’s goal was to end the influence of special interests in politics. As a result of this distortion, Republicans tend to forget about TR. However, he faced situations similar to those we face today and responded in ways that should make Republicans proud.
The Square Deal
First, there is TR himself. He was a self-made man: Starting as a sickly child, he became both an athlete and a scholar. He experienced great tragedy in his life. He was a veteran, a small-business owner and a dedicated family man. He lived in both rural America and urban America. He had executive and legislative experience at every level of government, and expertise in both domestic and foreign affairs. By the time TR become president, he was uniquely prepared to assume office and lead America.
The domestic situation in 1901 was not unlike our own. In the midst of rapid industrial change, Americans felt that government was no longer in their corner. On the one end were the city political bosses who manipulated immigrants and the poor in order to wield power. On the other end were economic interests trying to influence government to maintain their monopolies. It is easy to see previews of today’s identity politics and Solyndra-like deals. TR responded with his “Square Deal” for all Americans.
He worked for a basic social safety net for workers. At that time, improving the safety net mostly meant improving conditions for workers. He focused his “trust-busting” on monopolies that were working against the public interest. Rather than engaging in class warfare, TR left business alone unless they did something wrong.
Conservation also was a part of TR’s domestic agenda. He fulfilled America’s need for natural resources yet still worked to preserve our most important heritage sites. In domestic policy, TR achieved what we need so desperately today: a balanced approach to improving the well-being of all Americans.
The foreign policy landscape also bore resemblance to the world today. The United States was the pre-eminent industrial power in a multi-polar world. A powerful Russia, a reorganizing Europe and a rising Asia (which, in TR’s time, meant Japan) were all critical issues. Even the outlines of terrorism touched the U.S. as seen in the Perdicaris kidnapping. TR responded to this world with both strength and prudence.
He sent the U.S. Navy’s battle fleet, the Great White Fleet, to circumnavigate the globe to demonstrate the U.S.’s ability to protect American interests anywhere. He completed the Panama Canal to facilitate naval movement. To ensure that Europe stayed out of Latin America, he issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which reserved the United States’ right to intervene militarily in the case of European interference. At the same time, TR used diplomacy to negotiate peace between Russia and Japan and to resolve the Venezuela crisis through international arbitration.
So how might a modern TR tackle today’s issues? On the domestic front, fairness and effectiveness would be the basis of a 21st century Square Deal. However, the fairness would not be based on attacking wealthy Americans. The tax code would be simplified by closing loopholes and lowering rates, and it would encourage investment rather than speculation. The budget would be balanced.
Regulations in all areas would be repealed if they stifle growth or encourage monopolies, and those that remained would be enforced. The U.S. would increase domestic production in oil and gas, but oversight would be required. Education — students, not educational bureaucracies — would be a priority. The social safety net would be about empowerment, not discouraging upward mobility. That which is inappropriate for the federal government to do would be turned over to the private sector or the states so as not to create a federal monopoly on programs.
A modern TR also would change our foreign policy posture to defend U.S. interests. First and foremost, he would not shy away from U.S. leadership in world affairs and lead public opinion against isolationism. A realist diplomacy backed by resolve would always be our first option. Free trade and foreign aid would be used to influence global affairs.
Our modern TR would speak softly but carry a big stick. The U.S. would increase the size and capabilities of our military to respond to all types of situations. We would reassure our allies of our willingness to honor our obligations and stand up to our enemies. Russia would face full economic sanctions, and we would make every effort to ensure the Middle East does not fall into chaos from Libya to Syria. An American presence in the Pacific would remind China that regional leadership is only bestowed on responsible stakeholders.
Ultimately, TR understood the promise of America and its people. Through his experience, style and policies, he brought out what is best in us. He focused the energies of the changing times into improving American society and influencing world events for the better. The Republican Party would be well served to look to his example as it looks to 2016.