In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore, John McCain spoke about two things that should frighten Republicans and Democrats alike: Teddy Roosevelt and Bull Moose.
Although Moore recounts that McCain characterized Roosevelt’s bolting to the Progressive Party (popularly called the Bull Moose Party) in 1912 as “a mistake,” it’s not clear whether McCain felt the mistake was Roosevelt’s or the Republican Party’s.
Whatever McCain’s analysis of that almost-century-old mess, there can be no denying some of the close parallels between McCain and TR and between the partisan alignments of then and now. The Republicans were seen as strictly a party of “haves,” while the Democrats were a party of “have-nots.” Sound familiar? The Republicans were viewed as protectors of big business, whereas the Democrats were perceived as proponents of workers. That does sound familiar, doesn’t it?
The parallel that interests me most, though, is that the parties of Roosevelt’s era seemed so self-satisfied. Party platforms were tailored mostly to satisfy their respective base constituents. There was little or no interest in wooing nonaligned voters to one or the other party. Independent-minded voters were dished up a heaping of partisan proposals and expected to eat the Democrat or Republican stew, even if neither was particularly tasty.
Some diners balked. Wisconsin Republican Bob Lafollette was disgruntled enough with the Republican menu to initiate a reform movement. It’s important to recall that Lafollette didn’t immediately start a new party. Instead, he formed the National Republican Progressive League as a movement for change within the Republican Party. Only later did the Progressives evolve from movement to party.
I’m no Roosevelt scholar, for sure, but I have read some of his speeches and I’m interested that he most often spoke to voters of his alignment with a progressive “movement” rather than the Progressive Party per se. He never seemed to reject the people in the Republican Party; he was repelled only by the party bosses that, in Roosevelt’s words, “stole the nomination and wrecked the Republican Party for good and all.” But TR made plain that he had no beef with ordinary Republicans.
What’s remarkable, and should be a lesson for all Republicans, is that Roosevelt made appeals to all sorts of voters, attempting to win them to his cause.
In one 1912 speech in Wisconsin, he said: “Now, friends, what we progressives are trying to do is enroll rich and poor, whatever social or industrial position, to stand together for the most elementary rights of good citizenship.”
This is simple yet powerful rhetoric when compared to today’s speeches. Can you recall any Republican or Democrat overtly calling both the rich and poor to join their ranks? Some politicians talk around such themes today, but almost none directly tries to woo Americans of every social standing. I suppose they worry that everyone might actually join their party and then there’d be problems reconciling the differences. So mainly, parties just keep dancing with the ones that brought them.
In a day and age when other giant and historic institutions stand on the brink of bankruptcy (GM), irrelevance (AT&T, until SBC rescued the name) or outright oblivion (think of Pan Am or Eastern Airlines), it’s surprising to me that our two major political parties take their existence for granted and adopt such a lackadaisical attitude toward voters. Unless they do a better job of winning over voters, they could drive populists like McCain from their ranks. And that could spawn replacement parties.
Like Roosevelt, McCain seems to have a sense for the need to woo others to his ideas. He’s inclusive in his outlook. Those qualities alone shouldn’t mean that McCain is awarded the Republican nomination. But Republicans should look, learn and listen when McCain speaks. And be respectful of his contribution, win or lose, lest Republicans drive him down the path Roosevelt was forced to tread long ago.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.