T.R., a Common Hero for McCain, Spitzer
In the past couple of months, I’ve tried to document the ideological problems that the presumed Republican nominee for president, John McCain, might have with the more conservative core of his party. His stance on immigration has made so-called nativists within the GOP question his commitment to securing the U.S.-Mexico border. His work on campaign finance reform still stings for many conservative groups who say their business is being shut down. And his "commitment" to a greener environmental policy than George W. Bush has led many in Republican ranks to question his party loyalty.
Now comes Teddy Roosevelt. In a revealing interview published in The New York Times yesterday, McCain said he saw himself as a conservative in the image of the of the first Roosevelt to hold the Oval Office. If McCain’s nomination had filled the party’s base with searing distaste, this statement can only make the problem worse. Roosevelt, one could argue was the first modern liberal, whose ideas about government and the role it plays with its citizens paved the way for the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. He fought against the robber barons, tried to secure better working conditions for labor and interfered with the free-market in a way no president had before. He broke up monopolies, created national parks and served as an inspiration for his beloved niece Eleanor and her suitor–Franklin. For god’s sake, if you’re a Republican running for national office, there’s one response to the role-model question and we’ll give you three guesses who that is. Hint: He almost had Humphrey Bogart’s role as Rick in "Casablanca."
But instead McCain chose Roosevelt, which set off all sorts of beeps and alarms and civil warning sirens around my small rowhouse in Washington yesterday. That’s because the last politician I met to really identify himself with Teddy is someone with whom I’m sure McCain wouldn’t want to be compared: Eliot Spitzer. I can still remember that moment, as a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, standing in Spitzer’s Wall Street office in 2004. He was still the New York attorney general then, still the crusader, far, far from his dramatic public moral fall.
As he showed me around the large expanse, Spitzer came across the large photo of Roosevelt he had and told me: "I don’t have Teddy Roosevelt’s picture up there because I have any illusions of grandeur. It’s because I believe he’s the one that came closest to getting it—that the market needs those boundaries."
"The three areas where we have been most active, quite frankly, are where he was most active," Spitzer said. "Trust-busting is analogous to what we’ve done on Wall Street. He was the first one who understood that preserving our environment and passing it on to the next generation was something we should do. And he believed in protecting labor—not because he said we have a right to a particular wage at X dollars an hour, but preserving labor in the sense of holding businesses to a certain minimum threshold, which is why the labor cases are the ones I feel most passionately about."
Spitzer had good reason to associate himself with Roosevelt–he believed he was following ol’ Teddy’s example in the pursuit of justice. As for McCain, whose party has stood for the complete freedom of markets at almost any cost, it seems that the Roosevelt analogy should have been vetted, or at the very least studied a little harder. In an age where Ron Paul has become a near-heartthrob for young conservatives, the last thing you want is to compare yourself to a man whose legacy is about the expansion of government power, of the bully-pulpit. Because dude, when all else fails and you’re asked to give your political role model, for your own sake, you should always go with the Gipper.