Back during the 2008 Presidential race, John McCain described himself to the New York Times as “a conservative Republican… to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold.”
Many liberals didn’t buy the self-comparison to Teddy Roosevelt. But some conservatives said McCain was, too, like Roosevelt — and that was a bad thing.
“Is Roosevelt a proper model for today’s conservatives?” asked Max Boot at World Affairs. “That question isn’t easy to answer.” Boot, a fan of the Moro Massacre, had no trouble with TR’s jingoism and foreign adventuring, but was sensitive to the charge that the 26th President “was a ‘statist’ and a tax hiker,” though he finally judged that Roosevelt “always tried to maintain a balance between government activism and a vibrant private sector.” Still, Roosevelt didn’t really tax and regulate that much, said Boot, and his conservatism “represented one strain of conservatism among many.”
An outsider unconnected to the ideological purity wars of the conservative movement who came across Boot’s article — or the related ravings of someone like Classic Liberal (“The tendency of our government to micromanage everything began with Teddy Roosevelt’s administration”) — might wonder why anyone in his right mind would care about this. OK, there are conservatives who would drum several Republican Presidents out of the movement: Abraham Lincoln for overriding habeus corpus and suppression of the Confederacy, Dwight Eisenhower for being a Communist agent, etc. But surely these were cranks and fringe figures, not regular Party men.
Then, the weekend before last, at the venerable CPAC convention, after the delegates named Ron Paul their preferred Presidential contender, Glenn Beck gave a speech in which, among other things, he indirectly denounced McCain for admiring Theodore Roosevelt, and denounced Roosevelt as part of “the cancer that is eating America” — that is, progressivism.
Some rightbloggers defended the late President from Beck. But — perhaps understanding that their movement had a greater need to preserve the popularity of Beck than that of a dead historical figure — they did so gently, conceding that there was much sense in what Beck had said
A Roosevelt statement that private earnings should be required to bring a “benefit to the community” as well as to the earner, part of Beck’s bill of particulars, “was hardly the stuff of Adam Smith,” admitted Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller, “but it was also hardly Karl Marx.”
Lewis joined Beck in disagreement with Roosevelt’s “‘progressive’ political philosophy,” and added that “most modern-day conservatives would gladly repeal much of the New Deal and the Great Society.” But, like Boot, he argued that TR’s government expansions were modest by modern standards. Plus, Roosevelt was a tough guy, and tough guys are fundamentally conservative (“TR — who promised to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ — would probably make Dick Cheney look like a dove”).
Lewis also found an expert who suggested that if we reanimated Roosevelt and put him in charge today, he might be less of a trust-buster (“we know that he was a voracious learner, immensely creative”).
“This is not 2002 or 2006 — and we are a century removed from the Bull Moose Party days,” said American Thinker. Nonetheless, Beck’s “jabs at Teddy Roosevelt (and by extension, John McCain) were deserved.”
Various authors at the National Review website discussed the issue. (Conveniently for us, their comments were preserved by Born Again Redneck, who offered his own analysis: Though “an unabashed admirer of TR” before Beck’s speech, he was “now beginning to think that [Roosevelt] was an egomaniac who thought his ideas were superior to those of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison.”)
Jonah Goldberg — who has argued in his book Liberal Fascism that all liberals, including Roosevelt, are either Hitler’s spiritual forebears or his spiritual descendants, depending on where they turn up on the timeline — said, “T.R. saw the State (hopefully with himself at the helm) as the arbiter of what did and did not represent a ‘benefit’ to the community,” though he admitted that “T.R. was a better, saner, man as president than he was after he left the oval office and went much further to the left.”
John J. Miller praised Roosevelt’s butchness — “He was manly in the very best sense of the term” — but concluded that “to call him wrong about key matters of public-policy is appropriate,” though he admitted “psychopath” might be too strong a criticism.
Mark Steyn found Roosevelt’s statism “revolting.” Jay Nordlinger called his treatment of Woodrow Wilson “nutty, and nasty.” Daniel Foster warned those innocents who thought “Roosevelt Republicanism just meant national parks and trust-busting and maybe a few other eccentricities” of Roosevelt’s “continuity” with “the broader totalitarian moment” — that is, you start out with the Food and Drug Administration, and inevitably it’s jackboots and swastikas up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Big Journalism identified Roosevelt as the “first progressive president,” which was not so bad in itself — Roosevelt “finished the Panama Canal,” after all — but led to the dictatorship of Woodrow Wilson.
“Promoters of big government have long recognized TR as one of their own,” wrote Dissecting Leftism Backup, adding ominously that his admirers included Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (“who dramatically expanded federal regulation of the economy”).
At libertarian Reason, where they take their statism very seriously, Matt Welch denounced Roosevelt as a “megalomaniac” given to “sermons against capitalism’s ‘selfishness.’ It should be no surprise that after that 10 years of Teddy Roosevelt Republicanism, Republicans are once again asking whether that was such a good idea after all.”
A few conservatives actually, without temporizing, criticized Beck; one of these was former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who disputed Beck’s portrayal of TR’s politics and suggested that Republicans who went to the trouble of going back in time to conduct purges might be doing their party more harm than good.
Gerson was mostly attended by liberals and ignored by conservatives, though Ken Thomas of the Ashbrook Center sprang to defend Beck against him: TR, wrote Thomas, engaged in “class conflict” between the rich and the poor, and “Gerson simply shows his allegiance to big-government conservatism” by defending the indefensible Roosevelt.
Were we of a conspiratorial frame of mind, we might suspect this was a liberal psyops project to make conservatives look crazy. As it is, we imagine it has to do with rightbloggers’ lack of exposure to any people who are not exactly like themselves. Teddy Roosevelt’s fitness to bear the honorable term “conservative” probably seems to them a reasonable, worthwhile, and even edifying subject for discussion; they probably never imagine a swing voter observing such a discussion and wondering whether the Republican Party is any longer in the business of electing candidates to office, or if it has become the political equivalent of a fanfic site.
Fun bonus track: Revolt 426‘s response to an argument: “Let’s see who is wrong. You compared Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt — two complete opposites that had nothing to do with each other (Roosevelt was a traitor, Lincoln actually saved the Union from collapsing).”
Update: This week’s Commentary has an article by Jonathan Tobin called “Smearing Theodore Roosevelt” — but it’s not about our subjects here.
Tobin calls out a few liberal book authors as “intellectuals and activists who view American history as a continuum of racism, imperialism, and aggression” and in furtherance of that America-hatred “have now extended the hunt for the spiritual antecedents of the George W. Bush administration. Their prey is an unlikely villain: Theodore Roosevelt.”
Long deadlines are a bitch. But Tobin’s work may yet prove useful; if conservatives ever catch on that attacking one of the guys on Mount Rushmore isn’t a sure way to win America’s heart, they can always blame it on the other side.