John McCain, the 2008 Republican Candidate for President of these United States, has compared himself favorably with Theodore Roosevelt (and not minded when others have done the same). In fact, McCain has said that he sees himself as a conservative Republican “after the Theodore Roosevelt mold.”
If McCain identifies with Teddy Roosevelt, what might that mean to conservatives? Was TR a conservative and if so, in what ways and to what extent?
Let me start by saying a few things about the man after whom the bear was named. I’ve always enjoyed reading about Teddy’s exploits (whether written by him or someone else), but then what boy wouldn’t enjoy stories of war, hunting and just all-around manly endeavors? As an writer, I view his prolific output of 35 books remarkable, considering all the other things he did and was. He’s always seemed to me to be the kind of man that a father would like his sons to emulate, at least in terms of love of life and personal character.
Roosevelt had two terms in office as President (if we discount the 6 months where he served as VP before then-President McKinley died in office) where he was defined as a “progressive” rather than a “conservative.” Of course, the meaning of those terms has changed just a bit over the last 100 years.
As an example of this, most of the conservatives of that time (at least those in the Republican party) wanted to keep the tariffs high on goods, so as to support the US market. Roosevelt, on the other hand, seemed to support a more free-market approach (though the term “free-market” is probably anachronistic if applied to 1908 rather than 2008). I say “seemed to support” because he used the tariff issue as a bargaining piece with legislators who did not call the bluff, if that is all it was.
Like many, Theodore Roosevelt distrusted large businesses. Because of this, he saw legislation passed which regulated them, though without removing them from the market entirely. However, this government involvement, though for what seemed highly necessary reasons at the time, laid the groundwork for federal government intervention into the affairs of thousands of businesses, large and small, during the Great Depression.
Sayings such as “walk softly and carry a big stick” grew from his belief that the United States was a world power and had the moral responsibility to help weaker, smaller countries, particularly those in the Western Hemisphere. In this regard, one could say that he was a strong proponent of the Monroe Doctrine and even extended it a bit. He helped to broker the end of the Russo-Japanese War (and earned a Nobel in the process).
Roosevelt is particularly well-known today for increasing the number of National Parks and other areas reserved for public use by citizens of future generations. He did so for several reasons, not the least of which was his personal love for the outdoors. He was adamant in his support of conserving natural resources, as can be seen from the following:
The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.
After leaving the presidency (and spending some quality time traipsing about Africa with his Winchester rifles), Roosevelt returned to the United States and started up the Bull Moose Party to counter what he saw as William Howard Taft’s unwillingness to challenge the status quo.
From this time of re-entry into national politics, Theodore Roosevelt clearly advocated matters which are near and dear to the hearts of liberals today: progressive income tax, inheritance tax, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, national health service and so forth, as an apparent outworking of the the following statement:
The object of government is the welfare of the people.
On the other hand, he also wanted to ensure that new Americans had allegiance to only the United States, spoke English and were fully integrated into society.
Was Teddy Roosevelt a conservative? By today’s standards, he might have been considered conservative early in his first term of office. However, by the time he had left office and started up the Bull Moose Party, one would be hard pressed to not see the author of the Square Deal as having more in common with his cousin of the New Deal than with the Great Communicator.
So then, what does John McCain mean when he speaks of himself in comparison with Roosevelt? Perhaps that he (McCain) sees himself as a man within a party (much like Roosevelt) who had little problem leaving the other members of the party when he believed them to be wrong. In addition, McCain sees himself advocating for the new “conservationism” with his support for addressing anthropogenic global warming and related issues. McCain also sees himself as a lover of country who is unafraid to use force if force is needed.
Do conservatives have reason to be concerned about a McCain presidency? Yes, but I would postulate that this is true because of McCain’s own history on issues such as immigration and global warming, rather than any perceived connection to Teddy Roosevelt’s positions or policies. It would be interesting, though entirely without merit, to consider where Roosevelt would stand today if he could see the results of the policies which he advocated. Along those lines, I wonder what he would think of John McCain.