21 November 2020

How the Republican Teddy Roosevelt Helped to Define the 20th Century Democratic Party

In 1860, the US elected its first Republican president. Abraham Lincoln and the presidents through the end of that century helped to make the US an industrial economy that created a proliferation of amazing products (from telephone and radio to lightbulbs and automobiles to … well hundreds of products) and wealth. Nothing like it had happened in the history of the world.

Then in 1901, Teddy Roosevelt became president by accident. Or more precisely, by assassination. He actually adopted policies that might have helped the Republican Party to evolve to keep pace with the economy they’d helped to create but his changes were ultimately rejected.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt made a change really popular with voters but less popular with other politicians. Rather than give out government jobs as a reward for political support, he awarded government jobs based on merit. The Republicans knew they had to give this man a position but they didn’t want to give him power. So, they made him Vice-President to McKinley. The people loved him but as VP he could do no harm.

Unfortunately for those Republican party elders, the anarchist Czolgosz assassinated McKinley and suddenly the man they were trying to control was president. Roosevelt’s policies – including his efforts to regulate business, help labor and to conserve nature - put him at odds with the Republican party elders but they made him popular with regular Americans.

At the close of his presidency, Roosevelt endorsed Taft as his successor and then left. He first went on a safari in Africa where he and his group killed 11,000 animals before heading north to Sweden to collect a Noble Peace Prize, as one does after that much shooting.

It took him a while to get back to the US and by the time he did, he was appalled with what Taft was doing. Rather than build on Roosevelt’s policies, Taft was returning to Republican policies from the 1800s, reversing many of Roosevelt’s hard-earned gains for labor.

So, even though he’d already served two terms, Roosevelt ran against Taft in the Republican primary. And he won. Sort of. Back then the party candidate really was chosen in smoke-filled backrooms and deciding that they couldn’t afford another four years of Teddy’s policies, the party elders chose Taft to again run for president as the Republican nominee.

So, Roosevelt formed his own party, defined by causes that meant so much to him. My favorite political story is about how passionately Roosevelt believed in these causes. Imagine how much coverage the following would have gotten in today’s media landscape.

On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt, en route to the Milwaukee auditorium to speak, rose to wave at the crowd and was shot in the chest. As you might imagine, this created some commotion. His assistants insisted that he go to the hospital. He spit into a handkerchief and, seeing no blood, concluded that he would live long enough to deliver his speech and ordered them to take him to the auditorium instead.
The audience - this was 1912, a time before cell phones, TVs, or even radio - had no idea that Roosevelt had just been shot until he dramatically opened his suit jacket to show the spread of blood. When his aides saw this, they panicked at the sight and again insisted that he rush to the hospital. He again shook them off. (Aspiring public speakers who see in this great potential for gaining audience attention are advised to stay with the more traditional opening joke.)

Roosevelt explained to his audience that his speech was more important than his safety. (And, fortunately, it was a long speech. The sheaf of papers, fifty pages folded over, in his breast pocket was so thick that it slowed the bullet. Had he been delivering a speech as succinct as the Gettysburg Address, he may have died. Fortunately for him, he had a lot to get off his chest.) He stood up for those who could not defend themselves— women, children, minorities, and even nature. Roosevelt’s platform continued his defense of natural beauty (as president, Roosevelt had protected huge swaths of land like Yellowstone and Yosemite from development) and argued for progressive taxation, old-age insurance, regulations on business, an end to racist practices, the abolition of child labor, and woman’s suffrage. There were probably no issues that better defined the difference between 1900 and 2000 then the ones that he championed. No third-party candidate before or since got more of the vote and perhaps no candidate better defined politics for the coming century. He lost his bid for a third term, but his issues - his ideas about how the world should be - eventually won.

But he split the Republican vote and lost to Woodrow Wilson – a man regarded as the father of public administration. The reforms that Roosevelt initiated as governor of New York that would turn government officials into professionals rather than political cronies were reforms that Wilson pursued as an academic, defining the modern state in the process. Wilson was regarded as the father of American public administration, but he was only the first Democratic president who would be so defined by causes dear to Teddy Roosevelt.

As it turned out, all of the things that Roosevelt advocated were to become political realities … but under Democratic presidents, not Republican presidents.

Roosevelt was trying to evolve the Republican Party to adapt to the new realities it had helped to create. The next President Roosevelt (FDR) was a Democrat and he was the one who continued his fifth cousin’s initiatives. The Republican Party resisted the changes that Teddy championed while presidents like FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson made them reality.

In November of 1859, Darwin published Origin of Species. In November of 1860, Lincoln was elected as our first Republican president. Sadly, it seems as though no Republican other than Teddy Roosevelt ever took Darwin's idea of evolution seriously. It could have been a wonderful party if only they'd evolved as much as the realities they had helped to create.

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