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The year 1912 constitutes a defining moment in American history. Of the four men who sought the presidency that year — Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, and Debs — not one of them had definitively decided to run after the congressional elections of 1910.
Wilson, who had just been elected governor of New Jersey, had long hoped that someday the White House would be his, but all his experience had been as a college professor and, later, as the president of Princeton. He had been a noted theorist of congressional government, never a practitioner.
Debs had run for president on the Socialist ticket twice before. His firm commitment to social and economic justice targeted him once again as the favorite of Socialist voters, but he himself was weary of campaigning, often too sick to do anything but speak. His thrilling oratory, however, made him invaluable in the struggle against the excesses of industrial capitalism.
Taft, the reluctant incumbent, might well have abandoned the field of battle in 1912 and taught happily at Yale Law School while hoping for an appointment to the Supreme Court. Roosevelt, though lusting after the power of the presidency, still expected to support Taft. T.R., after all, had shown himself to be a consummate politician during his two terms in office and appreciated the potency of the party organization. If Taft could have approached his former mentor directly, confessed his anxieties about dealing with a Congress so dominated by right-wing Republicans that he was finding it impossible to carry out the reformist policies of T.R., he might then have urged Roosevelt to run for a third term. That would have prevented Roosevelt from challenging him for the presidency that Taft had so often loathed.
Had the charismatic Roosevelt received the Republican nomination, he almost surely would have won. He, far more than Taft, was in tune with the progressive spirit of the time. The Republican Party, in his hands, would likely have become a party of domestic reform and internationalist realism in foreign affairs. With his heroic virtues and condemnation of materialism, Roosevelt represents the road not taken by American conservatism.
The vote polled in 1912 by Debs, who garnered the largest share of the popular total ever won by a Socialist candidate, revealed the depth of the reformist forces sweeping the land. Never again would the Socialists show such strength. The Democrats during Wilson’s first term quickly picked up many of the social remedies Debs — and a radicalized Roosevelt — had championed.
Like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson embraced change, both men recognizing that their own careers could not flourish if they were to hold back the tide of reform. Neither leader believed that repose was essential to the happiness of humankind. The issues at stake were vital if America was to transform itself into a society that would deal effectively with the problems of the new century without sacrificing the democratic values that the founders had envisaged.
With the recent influx of new immigrants, many were condemned to work in squalid sweatshops and live in the deteriorating conditions of the urban poor. Journalists, social workers, ministers, and middle-class Americans were outraged at the widespread corruption of political bossism in the nation’s cities.
The threats to the environment by the expansion of industry and population seemed to require a national commitment to conserving the nation’s natural resources to avoid further destruction of wildlife and grasslands. The issue of women’s suffrage, the safeguarding of the right of black Americans to vote, and the need to end child labor and to regulate factory hours and conditions went to the very heart of the promise of American democracy.
Above all, there was the question of how to curb the excesses of big business, symbolized by the great trusts, which had accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism. For Roosevelt, calling for a “New Nationalism,” the role of government was to regulate big business, which was surely here to stay. For Wilson’s “New Freedom,” the government’s task was to restore competition in a world dominated by technology and mass markets that crushed small business. For Debs, America needed federal control of basic industries and a broad-based trade unionism. As for Taft, the White House simply needed to apply laws that were designed to restrain the excesses of industrial capitalism. Indeed, all four men struggled to balance 19th century democratic values with emerging 20th century institutions and technologies. For Roosevelt and Wilson, this required the bold use of executive power; between them they created the modern presidency. In its essence, 1912 introduced a conflict between progressive idealism, later incarnated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal — and subsequently by Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton — and conservative values, which reached their fullness with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The broken friendship between Taft and Roosevelt inflicted wounds on the Republican Party that have never been healed. For the rest of the century and even into the next, the Republican Party was riven by the struggle between reform and reaction, and between unilateralism in foreign relations and cosmopolitan internationalism.
Above all, the contest among Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft and Debs — over reform at home and later over American involvement abroad — recalls the great days of Jefferson and Hamilton, as the 1912 presidential campaign tackled the central question of America’s exceptional destiny.
The legacy of Franklin Roosevelt did not vanish in the United States throughout the near half century of the Cold War. In the Democratic Party, liberal internationalism bore the stamp of Franklin Roosevelt. In particular, with the advent of the Cold War, Harry Truman, George Marshall and Dean Acheson deepened and extended the new internationalism — with the Truman Doctrine to contain the expansion of the Soviet Union, the economic rebuilding of Europe spurred on by the Marshall Plan, and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The Republican Party, however, reflected the split in the party that had come about with the Taft-Roosevelt schism of 1912 — not only in foreign policy but also in the role of government at home. The liberal wing of the party seemed in the ascendancy during the Second World War and the first two decades of the Cold War. Between them, Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson A. Rockefeller shared the New York governorship for almost 30 years. Along with Wendell Willkie, who died in 1944, they were national leaders. Willkie ran for president in 1940, Dewey in 1944 and 1948. Rockefeller was a serious contender for the Republican nomination for president in 1960, 1964 and 1968; he served as vice president to Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977.
Dwight Eisenhower, who Harry Truman at one time thought might run as a Democrat to succeed him in the White House, continued to embrace Truman’s internationalism and did not seek to repeal the New Deal. Much the same could be said of Richard Nixon, who, whatever his personal predilections, allowed significant liberal legislation to pass during his presidency. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. occupied his grandfather’s seat as a senator from Massachusetts and later served as Eisenhower’s representative to the United Nations, as well as in diplomatic posts under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
The conservative wing of the Republican Party truly revived with the nomination of Barry Goldwater for the presidency in 1964; although Lyndon Johnson’s vote that year overwhelmed his, the policies he championed harked back to the days of Sen. Nelson Aldrich. Prior to Goldwater, William Howard Taft’s son Robert — in his efforts to gain the Republican nomination in 1940, 1944 and 1952 — had seized the leadership of the conservative wing of the party. Robert Taft, unlike his father, was an isolationist before the war. He opposed FDR’s Lend-Lease plan to provide supplies to the Allies during World War II; at war’s end, he opposed the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which had been created at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 and which became the cornerstones of the Western economic system that prevailed in the Cold War. “If we try to stabilize conditions with this Fund it will be like pouring money down a rathole,” he warned, fearing that under the IMF the United States would be playing “Santa Claus.” Robert Taft believed it was the duty of the opposition to oppose.
Taft was not an easy man, and his almost pathological dislike of FDR might well have stemmed from his mother’s hostility to T.R. and his family. He was humorless in debate, but well-informed, hard-headed and determined to curb America’s involvement in world affairs. He later voted against the Marshall Plan and NATO.
Ironically, he was befriended by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, who lived in Washington as a vicious critic of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Alice was very much in the forefront of the American isolationist movement as a founding member of the America First organization; she announced during the 1940 campaign, “I’d rather vote for Hitler than vote for Franklin for a third term.” Her father, however, had supported young Roosevelt in his political career, which was so modeled after his own.
Although Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 signaled the triumph of the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party, Reagan did not seriously challenge the Cold War politics of the past. In his domestic policies, on the other hand, his campaign for cutting taxes was a hallmark of conservative Republican virtue. Although he saw the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” that was the source of all the troubles in the world, during his second term, with the appointment of a less ideological secretary of state in George Schultz, he recognized that the end of the Cold War was in sight under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was carrying out a policy of openness and economic reform.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany, carefully managed by George H.W. Bush and his able secretary of state, James Baker, it seemed that the tradition of liberal internationalism was again in the ascendancy in the Republican Party. But the elder Bush had been Reagan’s vice president for two terms, and he was immensely aided in his election by his connection to a popular chief executive. As his term drew to a close, however, he also found himself increasingly pushed to endorse conservative social policies.
The presidency of William Jefferson Clinton was tied as much to the heritage of Theodore Roosevelt as to FDR. Clinton was an avowed admirer of the first Roosevelt and combined a commitment to fiscal responsibility with the desire to see the United States play a global role. In a post-Cold War world, however, the direction of foreign policy was less clear, and it was only in Clinton’s second administration that a more dynamic and effective foreign policy developed. The promise of what George H.W. Bush had called a “new world order” after the collapse of the Soviet Union was not fulfilled. A more apt description of the 1990s was the advent of world disorder, as the client states of both superpowers in the Balkans and much of Africa fell into civil conflict.
Once the United States was prepared to work with its allies and the United Nations to quell disorder and commit time and money to establishing democratic political institutions wherever possible, it seemed that the Clinton administration was prepared to lead the world into a new internationalism. An international police force, for example, need not be an American one, but it would have to have American backing to be useful; and America alone had the technology and resources to make such a force effective. This would require a sophisticated foreign policy that would preserve U.S. power while allaying fears that its ambitions threatened others. The economic boom presided over by the president and his gifted treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, made it possible to underwrite such a forward policy
But liberal internationalism and a prudent fiscal policy were undermined by the election of George W. Bush at the turn of the new century. Even before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration had begun to dismantle or reject treaties that would bind the United States to a larger international community. Then, as rifts gravely deepened between America and Europe in the months prior to the American-led attack on Iraq, Bush’s secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, referred to France and Germany, the most vocal opponents of unilateral military action, as “old Europe,” and the newer potential members of the European Union as the “new Europe.” Thus by exacerbating the tensions within Europe, the Bush administration appeared to want to weaken the very structures that presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton had worked to shore up.
The policy of the United States, as it was written in the National Security Strategy document issued by the White House in September 2002, promised to maintain whatever military capability would be needed to defeat any attempt by any state to oppose the will of the United States. With the Iraq war, the United States, supported only by one major ally, Great Britain, mounted a decisive military campaign against a large Middle Eastern state to overthrow that regime. Prior to that, America had toppled a regime in Afghanistan almost entirely by air power in an effort to eliminate that country as a base for international terrorism.
Even while running staggering budget deficits — before the end of the first decade of the 21st century they would likely run to almost a trillion dollars — American dominance was now self-evident. The U.S. defense budget was larger than the budgets of the next 14 industrial powers put together. Even with the economic downturn that the country suffered in the first years of Bush II’s presidency, the U.S. economy was larger than the next three biggest economies — Japan, Germany and Great Britain or France — combined. America’s imperial moment had arrived, even though Bush II came into office promising to scale back America’s overseas commitments. Instead, the administration committed itself to rebuilding the Middle East even if it took a generation. The 21st century saw an abandonment of American liberal internationalism, which had always meant seeking agreements and cooperation with nations that would advance America’s national interests.
At a West Point commencement in June 2002, President George W. Bush described his administration’s new worldview, asserting that “America has, and intends to keep, military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” This was, as foreign policy analyst Fareed Zakaria pointed out, “a breathtaking statement, promising that American power will transform international politics itself, making the millennia-old struggle over national security obsolete.” In some ways, Zakaria concludes, “it is the most Wilsonian statement any President has made since Wilson himself, echoing his pledge to create a ‘universal domination of right.’”
In domestic affairs, Bush’s environmental and fiscal policies seemed to indicate that the conservative wing of the Republican Party was firmly in control. Tax cuts favoring the wealthy, reductions in social services, and less stringent environmental policies echoed the Reagan era. The voters were told that the tax cuts would stimulate the economy, but the risk of enormous fiscal deficits was always present, which could eventually undo whatever stimulus the tax cuts provided.
In effect, the Bush II Republicans seemed bent on dismantling the achievements of FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. They pushed for further deregulation of big business, the privatizing of Social Security, and turning the healthcare of the elderly over to private insurance companies. Karl Rove, Bush’s political advisor, saw his boss in the image of William McKinley, a nostalgic and reactionary evocation of the years preceding the reformism of Theodore Roosevelt.
The Republican Party had indeed chosen a different road from what Theodore Roosevelt had taken. A commitment to social justice, expanded protection of the environment, and conservation of woodlands were no longer the hallmarks of Republicanism.
Between them, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson invented the modern presidency. In this respect, they also shared great admiration for Alexander Hamilton. T.R.’s commitment to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends was not unlike Wilson’s efforts to use strong executive power to promote free competition that would prevent big business from stifling local economies. Their legacy — and Hamilton’s — is to use centralized power to create greater democracy. For T.R., Hamilton’s strong government must be united with the “one great truth taught by Jefferson — that in America a statesman should trust the people, and should endeavor to secure each man all possible individual liberty, confident that he will use it right.” But greater for Theodore Roosevelt than Hamilton or Jefferson was Abraham Lincoln, for showing “how a strong people might have a strong government and yet remain the freest on earth.”
Adapted with permission from “1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs — The Election That Changed the Country,” by James Chace, to be published by Simon & Schuster in May.
James Chace is the Paul W. Williams Professor of Government and Public Law at Bard College. Among his books is "Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World."More James Chace.