When Progressive Wasn’t a Dirty Word

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By pure coincidence, I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” throughout the last month of silly season Republican politicking – the Donald Trump Show, the debate circus, and the Iowa State Fair “please-notice-me-I’m-wearing-dad-jeans-and-holding-a-fried-porkchop-on-a-stick” routine of American politics. Sadly, I’ve noticed the only thing unhealthier that what they stick in their mouths seems to be what comes out of them. But as I watch these pitiful bought-out attention-starved fundamentalist egomaniacs prance around trying to deport the most minorities, I can’t help but contrast this laughable state of public discourse with the debates of 100 years ago thoroughly outlined in DKG’s latest. Whatever happened to candidates like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft?

These guys were the original “progressives”: pro-worker, pro-social welfare, pro-market, pro-conservation, anti-trust, anti-tariff, anti-lobbying, and anti-establishment. Oh, and they advocated all of this as standard bearers of the Republican Party.

Roosevelt and Taft typified a time when the parties were probably closer ideologically than any other time in US history. In 1912, the two of them along with Woodrow Wilson campaigned against each other for president, all on platforms well to the left of any candidate today. It would be like the 2016 field were dominated by three candidates who all shared the politics of Bernie Sanders. We’ve changed a bit in 100 years.

By all accounts, Roosevelt was one of the great presidents of the 20th century. A Republican dynamo who couldn’t sit still for five seconds, he helped break up major railroad and oil trusts, fought for worker’s rights, intervened in labor disputes on behalf of workers, initiated civil service reform, preserved vast areas of the U.S. as National Parks and National Forests, and started the Panama Canal project. He was also a bit of a psychopath – violent, belligerent, thought that the U.S. needed to go to war with somebody every few years because it would keep us healthy and alert. But his Bull Moose spirit is what helped pushed much of the reform he advocated. Few, whether business or machine politicians – dared line up against him.

Taft, on the other hand, is not remembered as a great president, but he did more than most.

Mostly known for not fitting in his bathtub, he was actually perhaps the most experienced candidate of his day, having served as U.S. Solicitor General, Governor General of the Philippines, U.S. Appeals Court Judge, and U.S. Secretary of War. He was not as skilled with the press or his own words as the immensely popular Roosevelt (nor did his “Billy Possums” achieve the enduring love of Teddy Bears). Nevertheless, he was very effective, continuing trust-busting (almost too effectively), championing a tariff bill (something Roosevelt tried but failed), overseeing passage and ratification of 16th amendment allowing individual and corporate income tax, and 17th amendment for direct election of Senators. He also was appointed Chief Justice in 1921, nine years after presidency ended, and he is the only person to have been Chief Justice and President.

Taft lost support because of his inability to effectively govern, campaign or influence the public. Interestingly, in the 1912 election, many of his Republican former supporters became even more ardent supporters of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, because they saw him as the new standard-bearer of the progressive movement (I guess they ignored the fact that he was a huge racist). The ideals and policy solutions transcended party.

What really stands out about Roosevelt and Taft was their impassioned, determined moderation. These two progressive Republican presidents fought for better working conditions and social justice for the common man, but they were not enemies of capitalism, either. As much as they are known for breaking up monopolistic corporations like Standard Oil, they very much believed in the power and importance of healthy competition for the advancement of society. They understood that strong business and a strong market were good for American families and workers, but they also helped popularize the idea that fair and judicious regulation and limitation on the free market was good for the businesses. They did all this in part by harnessing the power of the popular – and populist – media in a way that grew both institutions, rather than marginalizing and vilifying journalism as became the trend later.

These presidents expanded the power of the executive office and opened a new era of American politics. In doing so, they expanded the possibilities of American capitalism, positioned the United States for its “American Century” by priming the pump of the modern US economy, and lay the groundwork for a robust and enduring middle class. They believed in limited government, but effective government. They saw a government fighting for equality and justice not as overreaching, but as performing its core duty.

All of that would be eroded if not shattered by the current lineup of Republican presidential candidates. Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and Jeb! Bush are about as far from Roosevelt and Taft as they can possibly be. It’s too bad they and their funders have deemed “progressive” a dirty word. Of the three American presidents who carried the progressive banner with pride, two of them were Republicans. Maybe today’s GOP candidates should study “The Bully Pulpit” instead of being bully puppets (#hottake).

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

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