The Corner

TR Cont’d

It turns out Tom is a blogger over at BigTent and he’s blogging the whole TR discussion. He’s posted his follow-up to my post and rather than bog the Corner down with it, you should check it out if this discussion interests you. Some quick points here:

He writes:

“Where I am going with this is that my impression of TR was that he was a smart enough guy to know when to act and when not to act. Obviously this is all speculative, but there is no real reason to expect that if TR were alive today he would be progressive in the 21st century sense of the word. He would still want to contain excesses, but he was bright enough that he would probably notice that most of the greatest excesses in contemporary America are in the government sector. I’d be okay with that kind of leadership.”

Me: Doesn’t this boil down to “TR was a great leader for his time and we need a great leader for our time”?

I have some reservations about the general yearning for “great leaders,” but putting those aside my response is “Okay, but.” The “but” comes in when you actually look at the people who want to emulate TR. McCain the leading TR booster in American politics is a big fan of regulation, including of political speech. The Weekly Standard grounded its call for Rooseveltian national greatness in the claim that conservatism should shed its reflexive opposition to big government. Our friend the Bull Moose left conservatism and/or the Republican Party entirely because he became convinced that the State needed to become more intrusive domestically — and TR is the dashboard saint he invokes to make these arguments. Just look at the cover of Time magazine. It grounds its case for TR in the supposed need for more government activism. My friend Peter Beinart basically comes out in favor of what Michael Lind has called “national greatness liberalism” complete with an assertive foreign policy abroad matched by a generous welfare state at home (and, essentially, everywhere else too).

Maybe Tom is right that if TR were alive today he would focus on trimming government excesses (I doubt it). But this is simply taking your own political agenda and saying that a “great leader” would follow it. In the real world, the people who want conservatives to follow TR’s path are looking for an excuse to drop traditional conservative anti-statism. And they are doing so by arguing that what was necessary in TR’s day is necessary today as well. That’s their agenda, and I don’t buy it.

As for TR’s racism, I’ve gotten some interesting emails on this I’d like to mull over. But I certainly agree that Wilson was a nastier racist than TR and, as I said, he believed that individuals could “overcome” their supposed racial baggage.

And as for foreign policy, I’m just unpersuaded that if you favor an assertive foreign policy you have to admire TR because he had an assertive foreign policy. And, also as I said, I don’t think simply because you admire TR you have to think that we need more TRness in today’s politics. I think he was an amazing man, but there are a lot of amazing men I would not like to see reincarnated as president in 2006.

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