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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - John Avlon

RealClearPolitics - Articles - John Avlon

Last Build Date: Mon, 27 Oct 2008 09:30:43 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

TR and the Two Candidates

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 09:30:43 -0600

It's stunning that 100 years after his presidency, TR still owns the brand for centrist Republicans. TR fought bitterly with the more conservative, big-business establishment of the GOP in his day. McCain has the scars from similar fights with the far-right of his time, whom he has pushed to modernize while reaching out to Democrats and Independents. In many ways, McCain's conflicts with Bush and Rove reflect the same fault-lines in the GOP that existed when TR warred with McKinley campaign manager Mark Hanna - the progressive reformer versus the play-to-the-base establishment.

But beyond politics, McCain identifies most with TR's rugged individualism and his belief in American greatness, expressed with military might. TR was an assistant secretary of the Navy and Congressional Medal of Honor winner; McCain the son of a naval family, a decorated combat veteran and prisoner of war. Both TR and McCain approach the presidency with special enthusiasm for foreign policy, and projecting American power onto the world stage as a sheriff if not a policeman.

Obama's connections with TR are less obvious. The Rough Rider remains a popular figure with Democrats because he was the original effective progressive, taking on "the malefactors of great wealth," and other corrupt special interests. Obama has repeatedly expressed admiration for TR, naming him second only to TR's own hero Abraham Lincoln in a list of presidential influences (on a side note, it's interesting that both are Republicans, albeit of another era).

Certainly, Obama buys into the same "heroic political leader" image that TR advanced, an idea buoyed by both being in their 40s, and the energy and popularity unleashed by being a candidate of generational change. But overall, Obama's identification with TR is less biographical and more cerebral.

No less than Edmund Morris, who started the modern TR-revival with his iconic 1979 biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, pointed out TR's "lifelong obsession with balance...the rhythms of the 'neither, nor' sentence...making him seem all the more 'above' the fray, eminently desirable as a peacemaker." Obama instinctively reaches for a similar framing device when analyzing problems and political conflicts, using an "on the one hand, on the other" structure to dispassionately describe the problems with predictable positions, then pointing out areas of common ground. He presents himself as an above the fray peacemaker, able to bridge old divides between left/right and black/white. Obama's "no drama" dislike of conflict does not square with TR the boxer, but they share an aloof perspective on the self-interested and a desire for balance.

Skeptics might point out that the substance versus style divide between the candidates is evident even in their admiration of TR. But what is most interesting is TR's continued relevance to contemporary political debates even 150 years after his birth. It comes in part because so much of TR's appeal is unmet in modern politics.

His was an unfinished revolution, representing what David Brooks calls the "progressive conservative" tradition in American politics that dates to Abraham Lincoln, but which has been abandoned by so much of the modern Republican coalition. The independent voters in the center - now a plurality - are the inheritors of this tradition and they are still looking for a leader to call their own. Either McCain or Obama might prove able to harness their hopes as president, but in the meantime Theodore Roosevelt remains the uncontested champion of voters in the vital center.

McCain Should Run Against Stevens

Thu, 31 Jul 2008 12:30:00 -0600

McCain also took early aim at the culture corruption that emerged from all the overspending and lobbying by GOP-leaning special interests - holding early hearings into the Jack Abramoff scandals that ultimately engulfed House Majority Leader Tom Delay, Congressman Bob Ney and others. It didn't make him popular with RNC apparatchiks, but it did make him right. The Republicans' rejection by the voters in 2006 was swift and vicious. But the war in Iraq was not - counter to conventional wisdom - the primary reason for the loss of their 12-year Congressional majority. Exit polls showed that voters were more disgusted by the corruption and ethics allegations - the steady stream of scandals from Duke Cunningham to Mark Foley. Fiscal conservative voters in particular felt a sense of betrayal - the Republican Party had somehow de linked fiscal conservatism with fiscal responsibility in a cynical and unsuccessful attempt to purchase a permanent majority. In the process, legislators got bought and sold by lobbyists, who almost by definition put self interest above the national interest. The Stevens' indictments are just the latest insult to their idealism. Luckily for the GOP, John McCain is the perfect antidote to the excesses of the former Republican Congress. He's taken heat for his criticism of fellow Senate club members before - shining light on absurd appropriations and bucking ideological litmus tests - but those principled stands of independence are precisely what made McCain one of the most widely admired political leaders in America. It's hard for some professional Republican partisans to understand, but John McCain is competitive in this election because of his independence, not in spite of it. Ironically, now polls show that McCain is being hurt by his association with the damaged Republican brand. One of the best ways to create daylight between himself and the Bush administration would be to revive his profile as a fearless reformer with a forceful new condemnation of the culture of corruption in Washington. He should hold out the examples Ted Stevens, Monica Goodling, Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff as counter examples of the direction in which he wants to lead his party and his nation. He can harness the anger toward Bush-era Republican excesses while pointing the way to a new McCain brand of the Republican Party. This declaration of independence would be something like a Sister Souljah moment for McCain's campaign. Senator Stevens is, of course, entitled to a presumption of innocence - as a statement from McCain Communications Director Nicole Wallace made clear - and Senator McCain is an honorable man, even to frequent legislative opponents. But this is not the time for tip-toeing around the specific allegations or the general ethical environment for fear of offending a fellow Republican. McCain has credibility on this front going back to the "Iron Triangle" speeches of his first presidential campaign - so this won't be greeted as a Johnny-come-lately "reformer with results" type of pose. It will remind voters that McCain represents a return to the heroic reform Republicanism of Teddy Roosevelt - someone who believes in strong national security and embodies the virtue of personal courage. He is a fearless political reformer, willing to take on the special interests of his own party. And like TR, he is a "wise-use" environmentalist, with a belief that nature should be preserved for future generations but also used for humanity's benefit. McCain resonates with independents because he puts patriotism over partisanship and the national interest over special interests. This is a message that the McCain campaign has been attempting to tap into with slogans -"Country First" - but surfing this news cycle with a principled stand will help do what the McCain campaign has been struggling to do over the past several weeks - reframe the terms of the debate, while recapturing the interest of reporters and the admiration of independents voters. Most importantly, it will remind[...]