In the year since Senator John McCain’s death, his shadow continues to loom over President Trump. McCain continues to represent the best of the Republican party, which remains a stubborn obstacle to Trump’s plans for America.
The endurance of the McCain-Trump rancor reminds us that the struggle between maverick and orthodox Republicans has deep historical roots. This year we mark not only the first anniversary of McCain’s passing (August 25), but also the 100th anniversary of the passing of the original maverick, Theodore Roosevelt. The long feud between McCain and the far right has instructively re-enacted the fierce battle between mavericks and conservatives that defined Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency and set the course for 20th century America.
At the dawn of both the 20th and 21st centuries, America’s defining issue was destabilizing wealth inequality due to massive technological change. While the Democratic party of each century flirted with socialism to address this challenge, Republican opponents—traditionally supportive of big business—split between two groups. On one side, orthodox Republicans advocated the same pro-business policies that had created wealth in the preceding decades. They believed that since their forebearers’ policies had worked in the past they would still work in the present, despite an obvious shift in the nation’s economic landscape. These Republicans and their business allies also profited handsomely off the status quo, so perhaps their orthodoxy lay in self-interest as well. On the other side, a minority of reform-minded Republicans felt that decades-old policies needed modification to address the new century’s challenges.
The reformers of both centuries were led by remarkably similar men: Each was war hero, conservationist, beloved by media elites, named after his father, and of the same military rank (a colonel in the Army and a captain in the Navy, respectively, one rank below having a star on his chest). Each abhorred the Democrats’ growing fondness for socialism, and revered the Republican giants of old. However, he found he not only had to fight bad ideas from Democrats; a majority of his own party was also inflexibly infatuated with outdated ideologies. His Republican nemesis became a party boss from the industrial Midwest near the Ohio River. This nemesis, a cunning Senate parliamentarian with deep-pocketed allies in the party and the fossil fuel industry, did whatever he could to thwart the maverick insurgency and retain personal and partisan power. The maverick and his nemesis fought each other just as fiercely as they fought the Democrats.
Fortunately for Americans of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt won his reformist insurgency against Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio and the orthodox Republicans, and enacted the Square Deal Economics that launched the American Century. Teddy forced the Republican Party to abandon the unstable laissez-faire capitalism of the 19th century in favor of more appropriate policies that addressed the nation’s new challenges—specifically, his historic “trust-busting.”
Unfortunately for 21st century Americans, John McCain lost his insurgency against Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump. McCain fought valiantly against their mistaken ideologies as well as against slander, far-right blowhards, big money and brain cancer, but in the end his legacy remains incomplete.
In order for mavericks in both parties to start winning again and help America thrive in the 21st century, we must understand the factors that helped Teddy prevail but deserted the equally talented McCain. Fortunately, we have some clear answers.
The Bull Moose and the Bully Pulpit
Teddy Roosevelt grew the toughness needed for his later fights through excruciating tests early in life. He overcame debilitating childhood asthma through incessant commitment to physical fitness beginning at age eleven, per his beloved father’s instructions: “Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body…You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”[i] After conquering asthma as a teenager and gaining admission to Harvard, tragedy struck him again and again.
Teddy’s father—his idol, mentor, best friend, and prominent New York Republican reformer—contracted bowel cancer just after being turned down for a prominent office in New York. As his condition worsened, Teddy rushed home to be at his father’s bedside. Theodore Sr. died the night before Teddy made it home. Teddy’s grief was compounded by guilt and sadness that he never got to say goodbye.
Six years later, within days of the birth of his first child, Teddy’s wife and mother died from illness on the same day—Valentine’s Day, 1884. His profound grief reverberates in the single line he wrote in his diary that night, “The light has gone out in my life.”
Teddy eventually recovered and channeled his grief into nonstop action in pursuit of justice, a frenetic pace from which he would never relent. Elected to the New York State Assembly out of law school at age 23, he immediately went after the entrenched corruption in both the Republican and Democratic state parties. He gained national prominence when he fought to punish a group of men who bribed a judge to issue false statements about the city’s elevated railway until the stock price sank low enough that they could buy it all up. He earned praise for both his eloquence and his courage to confront a system where brazen corruption infected all sides.
Seven years later, as civil service commissioner for Republican President Benjamin Harrison—a previously unheralded position charged with staffing the federal bureaucracy—he railed against a system in which “Each party profited by the offices when in power, and when in opposition each party insincerely denounced its opponents for doing exactly what it itself had done and intended to do again.” (Sound familiar?)
For example, the U.S. Post Office had long provided a ripe opportunity for corruption and patronage, no matter which party ruled. Roosevelt simply charted a new course when he investigated and released a scathing report on the corruption of the postmaster of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who soon resigned. In gaining national prominence as an anti-corruption crusader, he alienated President Harrison and many others within his own party. Fellow Republicans raised questions about his temperament. The battle lines between conservatives and reformers grew bright.
He then returned to New York and began his next career as New York police commissioner. As he cracked down on corruption there, he made powerful enemies like New York party boss Thomas Platt and national party boss Mark Hanna, who began conspiring to ensure Teddy could never be president.
After heroically leading American forces to victory at the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and then being elected New York’s governor, Teddy was so popular that Senators Platt and Hanna considered him an existential threat to their graft and rule. But they were smart and cunning too. So Platt and Hanna put Teddy in the one place he couldn’t do them any damage—the vice presidency.
A loyal Republican, Teddy begrudgingly accepted the VP nomination in the election of 1900 even though he knew he would be taking a historically marginalized office with little power, and that Senator Hanna would move to secure the presidential nomination in 1904. Roosevelt may never have become president if William McKinley hadn’t been shot by an anarchist in Buffalo in 1901.
When Roosevelt assumed power, the chasm between capital and labor threatened to rip the nation apart. Republican pro-business policies since the Lincoln administration had over the past four decades generated enormous prosperity via the Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age. The party’s policy platform consistently included tariffs to protect the industrializing North, public spending on infrastructure, and antipathy to governmental regulation of business, all of which helped nourish the nascent U.S. industry. However, such unregulated capitalism predictably led to monopolies where wealth and economic power concentrated in the hands of a few “robber barons”—Rockefeller with oil, JP Morgan with banking, and Carnegie with steel, for example. The working masses suffered under hard labor conditions, low wages, and long hours. Democrats representing labor unions and the agrarian South stridently opposed the Republicans’ pro-business agenda, exacerbating a partisan and geographic divide already viciously drawn over race.
Adding still more tinder to the cauldron that Teddy would inherit, irresponsible media bias—both sensational “yellow journalism” and openly partisan newspapers—made it hard for citizens to understand what was really true. One magazine editorialized that “the railroad combines first to rob the country of millions, and then to use a portion of this fund stolen from the people to corrupt the sources of information and thus try to perpetuate their robbery through a blinded public opinion.” (Sound familiar?). To top it all off, governmental corruption ran rampant.
The battle between labor and capital at the end of the nineteenth century was like a boiling pot, rife with violent abuses on both sides, such as the Homestead Strike of 1892 or the national Pullman Strike of 1894, which each left dozens dead. Such tension would provide the first major test of Teddy Roosevelt’s administration: the Pennsylvania Coal Strike of 1902.
President Roosevelt approached divisive issues by trying to forge compromise, rather than hold hard to his party’s orthodoxy. He famously gave speeches that laid out charitable arguments for both sides, before offering a moderate solution that incorporated the best ideas of both. In his first State of the Union address in 1901, as the cauldron boiled, he tried to lead the nation toward that elusive middle road:
The captains of industry who have driven the railway system across the continent, who have built up our commerce, who have developed our manufactures, have on the whole done great good to our people, yet it remains true there have been abuses connected with accumulation of wealth. …To strike with ignorant violence at the monopolies endangers the interests of all…and yet it is also true that practical efforts must be made to correct those evils.
To resolve the Pennsylvania coal strike, he carefully waited for public demand for a solution, and then invited both union leaders and business titans to negotiate with him in Washington—an unprecedented and risky action had it fail. He scored a decisive breakthrough in the fall of 1902, just as winter set in and Northerners needed coal. The workers and mine owners each won concessions in the agreement, including a 10 percent wage increase and a higher price for coal, and Teddy received widespread commendation for his bold action and success.
On the larger issue of monopolies (the trusts that he would eventually bust), Teddy likewise chose the bold middle ground. He rejected the problematic laissez-faire tendencies of the right as well as the socialism and union bosses of the left. Instead, Teddy Roosevelt offered America the famous “Square Deal,” a fair chance at an economic future with neither the oppression of the trusts nor the tyranny of the unions. In 1902 his attorney general brought America’s first ever antitrust lawsuit against big business, the Northern Securities Company, a railway trust owned partly by Republican financier J.P. Morgan. In Congress, Teddy supported major antitrust legislation including the creation of a Department of Commerce to regulate interstate monopolies.
Sensing danger in 1902, Hanna and Platt made sure that Republicans killed that bill in committee. No major antitrust legislation passed Congress that year, to the outrage and chagrin of the Reformers. The war within the Republican party had reached peak intensity, and the outcome was totally unclear. Incensed, Hanna growled, “That damn cowboy is president!” Hanna alone had feared the chance of a President Roosevelt when he schemed with Platt at the convention, considering Vice President Roosevelt as simply the least bad option.
Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in December 1902 was conciliatory, indicating his awareness that the country wasn’t ready for his solution yet. But this apparent contrition, although it disappointed the Reformers, was just a temporary show.
In January 1903, Teddy finally got some help. An investigative magazine called McClure’s published a series of articles exposing the corruption of the trusts, unions, and local governments. McClure’s shrewd business model and excellent writing enabled these stories to reach and resonate with the broad public, and in doing so the magazine gave Teddy the ammunition he needed to launch Square Deal economics over Republican opposition. Samuel McClure editorialized that “the vitality of democracy itself rests to-day upon the popular knowledge of complex questions.” (Sound familiar?)
According to Roosevelt biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, the emblematic article that destroyed the trusts in the court of public opinion focused on the abusive practices of the Standard Oil Trust and its founding figure, John D. Rockefeller. Journalist Ida Tarbell showed how Standard Oil negotiated illegal rebates with the railroad companies, earning them lower shipping costs than the little oil guy in upstate Pennsylvania struggling to make a living. Standard Oil used its monopoly power to therefore undercut the little guys, buy them out, and only then jack up the price. At its peak, Standard Oil controlled nearly 90% of United States oil production and refining capacity. With her article, Tarbell thus put a single word, “rebate,” and a face—Rockefeller’s—as the memorable monikers of the abusive trusts.
Goodwin documents how the January 1903 issue of McClure’s generated such public outcry that later that year the same Republican Congress was forced to pass all three of Teddy’s signature antitrust proposals, including the creation of the Commerce and Labor departments to regulate interstate trusts. The “muckrakers” had given Teddy the help he needed to overcome the intransigence of his own party. The next year, the Supreme Court decided in the government’s favor in the Northern Securities case. And, somewhat conveniently, Mark Hanna died in February of 1904 before he could challenge for the presidential nomination.
Roosevelt and his successor’s administration would go on to break up dozens of trusts, from sugar to oil to beef to steel. He passed signature legislation such as the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and even the nation’s first campaign finance reform law in 1907 (the Tillman Act, which prohibited corporations from making direct financial contributions to candidates). In 1909, Roosevelt’s chosen successor, William Howard Taft, won an antitrust lawsuit against Standard Oil, breaking it up into 34 companies, such as Chevron and Exxon.
The Square Deal that Teddy promised the American people was the right medicine for the challenges of his day, and the rest is the economic history of the 20th century. Teddy recognized that decades-old economic ideas needed modification for the new century, something the majority of his party would not do. In the face of severe national tension and intransigence in his own party, he led America to the just result that lay between the two extremes. He rejected the party orthodoxy of the past four decades in favor of a reform agenda that delivered results. He succeeded through a combination of skill, determination, luck, persuasive arguments for compromise, and mostly importantly a helpful media.
The Rebel and the Reactionaries
Toward the end of the American Century that Teddy launched, the old issues of inequality and massive technological change brought a familiar dilemma to the United States and the Republican party. The heir to Teddy Roosevelt’s maverick streak—Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona—found himself fighting against the corruption and inertia of his party as it became clear that the Reagan orthodoxy that had generated new prosperity needed updating. McCain was fittingly born to a naval family 1936 in the Panama Canal Zone, the same one Teddy Roosevelt built.
A rebel at the Naval Academy, graduating near the bottom of his class, McCain’s formative test came at age 31 when he was shot down over Vietnam. As everyone knows, he turned down early release in favor of daily torture. Like Teddy, this tragedy nearly broke him, yet he emerged more fearless, energetic, and determined.
After returning from Vietnam in 1973, McCain rose to the rank of captain—the analogous rank in the Navy to Col. Teddy Roosevelt—before entering politics. With the nation then suffering the “stagflation” of high inflation, high taxes, and high unemployment—along with foreign policy humiliations like the Iran hostage crisis and recent Communist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Nicaragua—a new Republican giant rose to prominence offering “morning in America” on the back of a simple program of tax cuts and a military buildup. Like Lincoln’s new economic agenda had a century prior, Reaganomics worked. John McCain “enlisted as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution,” winning a seat in Congress in 1982.
John McCain proved a reliable Republican vote first in the House and then in the Senate. The 1980s and 1990s unleashed a flood of new prosperity in America, as Reaganomics proved the right medicine for the time. Reagan and George H.W. Bush also finally brought down the Soviet Union. Reaganism gained many fans.
By the year 2000, however, the Republican party found itself in the same policy dilemma it had faced 100 years prior. The new prosperity unleashed by two decades of competent government created a booming economy, a budget surplus and new industries, but also widening inequality, loss of manufacturing jobs to globalization and automation and the impending retirement of the Baby Boomers.
For the presidential nomination, the Republican leadership had mostly coalesced around Texas Governor George W. Bush as the frontrunner. As the son of a former president and governor of a large state, he seemed a logical choice.
There was just one problem—Bush probably wasn’t up to the job. Commentators derided him as an empty suit, lacking the intellectual chops to be president. His policy proposals simply recapitulated the Republican orthodoxy of the 1980s, with major tax cuts for the rich and deregulation that would not address the looming issues of inequality or Social Security insolvency. While the top marginal tax rate when Reagan took power was an unreasonable 70 percent, in 2000 it was a much more appropriate 39.6 percent. Tax cuts simply couldn’t have the same effect as before.
So Senator McCain seized the reform platform and entered the race as an underdog. Choosing as his moderate positions like a more responsible tax cut and campaign finance reform, and becoming as symbiotic with the media as Roosevelt had been a century prior, he courted the votes of the moderates—“Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, and Vegetarians.” He railed against Bush’s promise of tax cuts: “Sixty percent of the benefits from his tax cuts go to the wealthiest 10 percent% of Americans—and that’s not the kind of tax relief that Americans need.” He thus staked out the moderate position on taxes and corruption against his party orthodoxy in exactly the manner of Teddy Roosevelt. He even cited Roosevelt as his “ultimate hero.” He crushed Bush in New Hampshire 49-30, and the nomination became a two-man race.
Bush suddenly found himself vulnerable, and the party establishment lunged at the maverick with a vengeance. The next primary—South Carolina—could decide the Republican race. South Carolina’s coast had many retired military veterans, making it McCain-friendly, while the religious interior favored Bush. But Bush’s team left nothing to chance.
In one of the most vile political moments of the American Republic, Bush “supporters” began spreading rumors about McCain’s 8-year-old daughter, adopted seven years prior from Bangladesh. Shadowy groups reportedly linked to the religious Bob Jones University (founded by Bob Jones, a friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s Democratic nemesis William Jennings Bryan)—distributed fliers of the child all over South Carolina questioning whether Bridget was in fact McCain’s illegitimate African-American daughter. They conducted push-polls, where they called South Carolinians on the phone and asked for whom they would vote in the primary. If the respondent said Bush, they simply confirmed the polling place. But if the respondent said they were leaning McCain, they asked “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” McCain lost the South Carolina primary, and he was angry.
McCain won the next primaries in Michigan and Arizona, setting up an all-important primary in Virginia a week before Super Tuesday, March 7, when 13 states including delegate-rich California, New York, and Ohio would vote. The day before the Virginia primary, McCain lost his temper with the Christian right, which had consistently voted for the Bush campaign. He delivered his famous “Agents of Intolerance” speech, cementing his maverick status for all time, but departing from Teddy’s measured savviness with a frontal assault on the Christian right. With righteous zeal, McCain attempted to peel off the votes of Christian voters from their leaders and reorient the Republican party behind his moderate agenda:
I am a pro-life, pro-family fiscal conservative, an advocate of strong defense, and yet Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and a few Washington leaders of the pro-life movement call me an unacceptable presidential candidate. They distort my pro-life positions and smear the reputations of my supporters. Why? Because I don’t pander to them, because I don’t ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message…
My friends, we’re building a new Republican majority, a majority to serve the values that have long defined our party and made our country great. Social conservatives should flock to our banner. Why should you fear a candidate who believes we should honor our obligations to the old and the young? Why should you fear a candidate who believes we should first cut taxes for those who need it most? Why should you fear a candidate who wants to reform the practices of politics and government so they fairly reflect your aspirations for your family and country?…Why should you fear a candidate who shares your values? My friends, I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. Unfortunately, George Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore…
The political tactics of division and slander are not our values; they are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party, and our country. Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right!
Note that the final sentence in this speech adequately describes America’s 45th president. But unlike Teddy Roosevelt, McCain in his prescience got out in front of his party, and it backfired. While polls looked close before his speech, he lost Virginia 53-44, and then lost nine of 13 states on Super Tuesday. He suspended his campaign two days later, ruled out any chance of being Bush’s running mate, and took his fight to the Senate.
The 2000 Republican nomination contest therefore served as a battlefield not only for economic ideas, but also for the moral direction of the Republican party. Bush won, and the consequences of his win would be stark.
In the Senate, McCain continued his maverick crusade against the orthodox rght. Channeling Teddy’s passage of the Tillman Act, McCain co-authored his own bipartisan campaign finance reform act in 2002, a major defeat for the Republican establishment. He opposed the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 on grounds that they disproportionately benefited the wealthy while blowing up the deficit and removing badly needed resources from the military, which was fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq. McCain then became one of the first Republicans to publicly oppose Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s catastrophic mismanagement of the Iraq war.
As he pursued this maverick path, he enraged his enemies across the Republican establishment. His antagonism of radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh stands out as the epitome of their mutual antipathy. While McCain worked to undermine Bush’s tax cut proposal, Limbaugh attacked McCain as an economic lout who was just bitter over the 2000 election. Asked about the criticism, McCain responded that he viewed Limbaugh as an entertainer, “a circus clown,” and ignored such criticism. Limbaugh in turn ratcheted up the vitriol as only he can.
Later that week, Fox News host Neil Cavuto asked McCain if he wanted to apologize for calling Limbaugh a clown. McCain responded with a somber face, “I regret that statement because my office has been flooded with angry phone calls from circus clowns all over America. They resent that comparison and so I would like to extend my apologies to Bozo, Chuckles, and Krusty.”
McCain’s maverick tendencies ruffled feathers within Congress as well, notably Kentucky Senator and Republican Whip Mitch McConnell. McConnell—whose Louisville, Kentucky, home lies on the same Ohio River near which Mark Hanna was born and raised—would become McCain’s Mark Hanna. Immediately after President Bush signed McCain’s signature campaign finance reform, McConnell immediately sued and got part of it overturned in McConnell vs. Federal Election Commission in 2003.
When McConnell and Bush threatened to abolish the judicial filibuster to push through conservative justices, McCain led the “Gang of 14” compromise, which preserved the filibuster against the tide of history. His Senate career included myriad other maverick moments, such as opposing Republican Ted Stevens’ “Bridge to Nowhere” and holding the hearings that put Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in prison. The Republicans whom he confronted complained publicly about McCain’s temperament, just as Hanna had about Teddy.
Despite winning these battles, however, McCain’s maverick insurgency ultimately failed. In order to win his party’s nomination in 2008, he had to relent on most of his signature dissents. He recanted—clearly against his will—his position that Jerry Falwell was an agent of intolerance, and gave the commencement address at Falwell’s university. Falwell inconveniently died in 2007, before he could help turn out Christian conservatives for McCain. McCain’s tax plan in 2008 was disproportionately tilted toward the wealthy, contradicting his principled stand against the Bush tax cuts. He was forced to select as his running mate a darling of conservative media—Sarah Palin—instead of his preferred choice, maverick Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman.
After losing the election, McCain watched grimly as the two justices he helped confirm in 2005 voted with a 5-4 majority in Citizens United vs. FEC to overturn most of what remained of his signature campaign finance law, even weakening the Tillman Act. McConnell soon abolished the judicial filibuster and packed the judiciary still further. McCain’s untimely death gave McConnell a crucial vote he needs to push Judge Kavanaugh through before the midterms.
McCain did score one more victory against McConnell when, shortly after brain surgery, he dramatically returned to Washington to cast the deciding vote against McConnell’s purely partisan health care law. Having railed against the Democrats’ passing Obamacare without a single Republican vote, McCain felt—unlike McConnell—that Republicans must not do the same. Still, McConnell inserted the repeal of the health insurance individual mandate in the tax bill, and it passed with 51-48. McCain did not vote on the bill, since he was battling brain cancer in Arizona. His non-vote was a non-event, since all other Republicans—even the moderates—supported the bills. The Republican establishment won again.
The Mavericks and Their Messages
The scene in 2019 lays bare that the 21st century version of Teddy’s fight went horribly wrong, with an Agent of Intolerance now in the White House and McCain recently dying from brain cancer. Trump is clearly the Republican descendent of the Bush wing of the Republican Party, combining anti-intellectualism, a bullying foreign policy, abasement to Russia, a hypocritical alliance with the Christian Right and irresponsible tax cuts into a monstrosity that Teddy would have abhorred. The Trump administration embodies the predictable effects of letting the refuse of the Bush administration rot in a Fox-fermented cesspool for eight years. Trump—a narcissistic draft-dodger—is the antithesis of everything McCain stood for, exemplified by the absurd moment when he said “I like people who weren’t captured.” That that did not disqualify him from the Republican nomination reveals the deep moral bankruptcy and phony patriotism of Bush Republicanism. Jerry Falwell Jr. remains among the most loyal Trump-apologists, despite the President’s lifetime commitment to enjoying each of the seven deadly sins.
Why did McCain’s fight end so differently from Teddy’s? The greatest lesson from these parallel insurgencies is that America today lacks a news organization that serves McClure’s role as honest broker and public educator. Instead, Fox News and Breitbart serve as its dystopian doppelganger, supporting the corrupt orthodoxy rather than the reformers, and no outlet has yet emerged to reincarnate McClure’s just crusade. Perhaps CNN was best positioned to fill this role as readily consumable and non-partisan news, but during these decades they abdicated their sacred duty. Even before they showed the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s rallies in 2015 to fuel his rise, they debased themselves by devoting nearly a year to wall-to-wall coverage of Malaysia flight 370.
Instead of mirroring McClure’s dogged focus on the abuses of the trusts, today’s TV news remains distracted by the President’s myriad antics as he jerks them around from one outrage to another. Just as it took focus on the catastrophes of Katrina, Iraq and Wall Street to finally help America realize the disaster of the Bush administration, so should today’s media remain focused on Trump’s most egregious abuses, rather than reporting his every shocking tweet. He tweets garbage for a reason—it works.
TV news must therefore embrace its historic duty and reform its business model immediately, even at the cost of lower advertising revenue in the short-term. The externalities of our dysfunctional politics and deteriorating country have become too costly. Partisan and ignorant TV media now combine with corrupt campaign finance to keep squeezing moderate Republicans out of Congress, which makes it harder for moderate Democrats to find anyone with whom to compromise. Would-be Republican moderates cower at the threat of well-funded primary challengers, backed by Breitbart, Fox and McConnell, in the aftermath of Citizens United.
Meanwhile, Democrats offered but fleeting allegiance to McCain’s maverick crusade, evidenced by their petty speeches at the 2008 convention (such as when fellow Vietnam veteran John Kerry scoffed at “the myth of a maverick”). Only Republicans—and Democrats, for that matter—with McCain’s courage, grit and gravitas seem able to endure the fight for the middle in this century.
Therefore, in addition to the need for a new McClure’s, mavericks of all stripes must learn from McCain and Teddy to stiffen up in their fight for the center, perhaps even as a moderate third party if Democrats move further left. That isn’t such a far-fetched idea, and Teddy again shows us the way.
The Republican establishment eventually struck back against Teddy’s legacy just as it did against McCain, showing that the maverick fight never ends. Teddy’s successor, William Taft, retreated enough to partisan orthodoxy that Teddy challenged him for the 1912 Republican nomination. When Teddy lost, he founded the Bull Moose Party, and mounted the most successful third party candidacy in American history, winning six states and eighty-eight electoral votes. Much of the Bull Moose Party platform became law under the Wilson administration, including sweeping electoral reforms—direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, the referendum, the recall, and the initiative—as well as the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act and Federal Trade Commission Act. Even in defeat, the Bull Moose helped the country move forward. Our dysfunctional Congress needs similarly bold reformers today, instead of representative and senators unwilling to challenge their leaders and system for fear of losing committee assignments.
Finally, all moderates with this dream of a strong center can learn from Teddy’s combination of savviness, charitability and idealism, from which McCain in his brashness occasionally deviated. As we consider today’s bitterly divided parties, Teddy counsels us that “We must realize on the one hand, that we can do little if we do not set ourselves a high ideal, and, on the other, that we will fail in accomplishing even this little if we do not work through practical methods and with a readiness to face life as it is, and not as we think it ought to be.” This means that all sides must admit when their opponents have valid points, as Teddy often did as he forged compromise solutions amidst condemnation from his ideological allies. Neglecting Teddy’s moderation brings painful consequences for everyone.
The Republicans returned to power in the 1920s under Warren Harding and rediscovered their affection for a hybrid of “laissez-faire” capitalism combined with tariffs . These short-sighted policies bequeathed the prosperous Roaring Twenties, the historically corrupt Harding administration, the stock market crash, and the Great Depression.
When the stock market bubble burst, Republicans forgot Teddy’s legacy and doubled down on tired orthodoxy. President Hoover pushed a seven-decades-old program of tariffs and opposition to federal spending—along with mass deportation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (sound familiar?)—that exacerbated the Depression. It is instructive for our story that to deliver the economic medicine needed to confront the Depression, the nation turned not to orthodox Republicans—but to a Roosevelt (Franklin, in this case). The Republicans, fully discredited, would not return to power for a quarter-century.
Trump has brought America another Great Depression, this one of the moral and psychological kind. His financial recklessness may yet beget an economic crisis as well. Trump and Hoover will both have presided over the decline of Republican regimes, leaving America searching for an ideology appropriate for the great challenges of the 21st century. The 2020 election offers a perfect opportunity for a maverick renaissance to fulfill McCain’s legacy of bipartisan solutions.
Something will follow Trump, but we do not yet know its character. The next administration must deliver sorely needed economic medicine, like Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt did, or it could push the failed policies of the past, like George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover did. Teddy Roosevelt showed that we need not wait for complete catastrophe before we take the right economic medicine. What our next decade looks like depends on how well we learn from history.
And on our willingness to face life as it is, and not as we think it ought to be.