March 24, 2010
T.R.'s Worst MistakeBy Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison
Backers of the health care takeover are hailing its passage as "historic." They are saying that President Obama's advocacy of socialized medicine harkens back to a nationalized health care plan first put forward by Theodore Roosevelt. They're right.
It was not part of T.R.'s presidency. It was not part of any of the many winning campaigns Roosevelt ever conducted. Socialized medicine was a plank in the platform of the ill-fated Progressive Party in 1912. That campaign, much beloved of American progressives today, was T.R.'s worst mistake.
Roosevelt was goaded into running against the man he had single-handedly promoted to the presidency, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt listened to the murmurings of professional murmurers and allowed himself to split the Republican Party.
"My hat is in the ring," T.R. triumphantly told some of his progressive backers. That cowboy term signaled a willingness to fight. T.R. fought for the Republican nomination. He won the few contested primaries that fateful spring, but party regulars delivered the Republican nomination to President Taft.
T.R. immediately joined a convention of the Progressive Party and claimed that "we stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord." Teddy's old allies, sensible conservative men like Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, and even Nicholas Longworth, his son-in-law, were appalled. Taft was brokenhearted. The president, wrote one reporter, sat in his special train car and wept over the lost friendship.
T.R. declared himself fit as "a bull moose" and took to the hustings. He fearlessly delivered a speech in Milwaukee -- with an assassin's bullet still lodged in his chest. His audience gasped when they saw his bloody shirt.
Those of us who revere T.R.'s memory must wince at his indulging his worst passions in that 1912 campaign. He fatally split the Republican Party, assuring the election of the disastrous Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson presided over a segregated federal government. Wilson took this country into World War I, for which his pacifist policies left us almost wholly unprepared. He permitted black soldiers in the U.S. Army to be detailed to the French to plug holes in their lines, but he withheld his white troops.
Wilson's willful and one-sided negotiation of the Versailles Treaty led the U.S. Senate to reject both the treaty and the League of Nations. That international organization was one to which Wilson was willing to yield up too much of U.S. sovereignty. Wilson refused the Japanese request for a racial equality clause in the Versailles Treaty. Japan was our ally in World War I. Fearing the reaction of his segregationist allies in the U.S. Senate, Wilson rejected their plea. All the Japanese asked for could be found willingly stated in the American Declaration of Independence. The Japanese walked out of the Paris peace talks, their democratic government hopelessly compromised by allied blindness.
What fateful consequences followed.
Wilson as president screened the first movie ever shown in the White House. To our shame, it was The Birth of a Nation, a propaganda film that lionized the Ku Klux Klan.
"It's all too true," said Wilson, whose own son-in-law would go on to be the Klan's preferred candidate for president. Wilson added: "It is history written with lightning."
Nearing the end of World War I, former President Roosevelt advocated invading Germany to convince the Germans that they had really been defeated, demanding of them unconditional surrender, occupying Germany, and reincorporating the capable German people into the family of Western democracies. He further supported trying the exiled German Kaiser and his gang of militarist criminals and remaining true to our allies, England and France.
All of these policies were rejected by the headstrong Woodrow Wilson. All of these policies would be followed by Franklin Roosevelt, T.R.'s cousin, and his successor, Harry Truman. But these wise and realistic T.R. policies would be put into place only after a second terrible world war. It was, after all, Winston Churchill who referred to the Second World War as "the unnecessary war."
Something else we learned from the only campaign T.R. ever lost: the futility of third-party efforts. Wilson came in on the split. He garnered a mere 41.8% of the popular vote (6.3 million). But he reaped an Electoral College landslide of 435 votes. T.R. came in second with 27.4% of the popular vote (4.1 million) and 88 Electoral Votes. Taft, the incumbent, won 23.2% of the popular vote (3.4 million) and just 8 Electoral Votes. With no Electoral Votes but a considerable popular vote tally of 900,369, or 6%, Socialist Eugene Victor Debs campaigned across the country in a Red Train. He was the full-throated advocate of nationalized health care. But progressives of today understandably prefer to hang on T.R.'s coattails.
So, if the progressives of today want to claim T.R., then we cannot really deny them. But we need to know the rest of the story. Much of the tragic history of the twentieth century might have been avoided if T.R. had not allowed himself to be provoked into that losing campaign. Roosevelt probably described his 1912 Progressives best when he called them the usual collection of good government types, reformers, and, of course, "the lunatic fringe." He coined that marvelous phrase. One wonders what T.R. would make of Dennis Kucinich.
Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison are senior fellows at the Family Research Council.