Sometimes you need to look back to get a sense of where you’re going. With his administration settling into late middle age and the Republican Party staring nervously at mid-term elections, President Bush occupied himself during his Christmas holiday in Crawford by reading a biography of President Theodore Roosevelt’s post-presidential years by Patricia O’Toole titled “When Trumpets Call.”
This slice-of-life leak from the Western White House provoked a ripple of chattering class analysis unseen since John F. Kennedy’s fondness for Ian Fleming’s “From Russia With Love” helped kick the James Bond franchise into high gear. “Is Bush thinking about ’09?” CNN.com breathlessly asked, referring to the year when the president will relinquish the stage to his successor. With three years left in his term, such pre-occupation with retirement would indeed be disappointing and discouraging.
But the real story seems to be President Bush’s continued identification with the nation’s 26th president. Because this is at least the second biography of Theodore Roosevelt that George W. Bush has read during his tenure in office, the first being Edmund Morris’s magisterial “Theodore Rex,” which recounted TR’s presidential years.
In some ways, the comparison is striking. These two Republican presidents, serving 100 years apart, book-end the American Century. Both were children of the Eastern establishment who re-invented themselves using the imagery of the west as a way of connecting with common folk. Both men welcomed a good fight, kept a proudly athletic pace while in office, and promoted the Bible as a moral bedrock of society. Both men disdained effete intellectualism in favor of courage and rock-ribbed character. But for all these comforting points of contact, their political legacies stand in stark contrast.
Roosevelt was committed to transforming the Republican Party to a national force for progressive reform. He was forever reaching out beyond traditional constituencies, openly criticizing the big business base of the Republican Party – decrying “the corrupt alliance of crooked business and crooked politics” – while winning over progressives and independents to his cause. Roosevelt championed early social welfare legislation with the aim of halting the spread of socialism while managing to hold the line on government spending by focusing on increased regulation rather than new entitlements. He made government the founding partner of the modern environmental conservation movement, arguing that “there is nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty.”
While Roosevelt advocated an assertive foreign policy based on right and wrong, he distrusted entangling alliances abroad. Mr. Bush has championed geo-political Wilsonianism (named after Roosevelt’s post-presidential rival) by aiming to make the Middle East safe for democracy. While Mr. Bush signed off on significant new congressional spending in areas such as prescription drugs and made inroads to the Hispanic community, his administration has pursued an essentially establishment conservative agenda at home.
But the most striking evidence of their different political approaches may come directly from Mr. Bush’s chief political adviser. Karl Rove belongs to a strange sub-species of American political scientists who avidly admire the influence of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, the conservative kingmaker who steered William McKinley to the presidency. “Politics are one form of business,” Hanna believed, “and must be treated as a business.” Hanna hated McKinley’s second term vice-president, Theodore Roosevelt, referred to him as “that damned cowboy” and saw Roosevelt’s expansive vision of the Republican Party as a threat to his carefully constructed political balance of power.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Mr. Rove’s political strategy is diametrically opposed to Roosevelt’s approach to winning elections. Mr. Rove famously preaches the virtue of playing to the base, denying the meaningful existence of a moderate middle in America. In contrast, Roosevelt was quick to court public fights with Republican power-brokers like J.P. Morgan, but in the process he won over the reasonable edge of the opposition and secured the largest popular and electoral margin of support in American history up to that point for his election in 1904. Exactly 100 years later, Karl Rove’s strategy resulted in President Bush winning re-election with just 51.3% of the popular vote.
What makes all these century-spanning comparisons still relevant is that the split between the Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Hanna factions within the Republican Party have continued to grow more stark over time. Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove represent the maintenance of the Republican establishment. The reform Republican tradition of TR is represented by more maverick but broadly popular figures such as Senator McCain and Mayor Giuliani.
Both men are outright admirers of Theodore Roosevelt. Mayor Giuliani kept a framed photograph of TR – himself a former New York City police commissioner and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor – in his office in City Hall, while McCain rarely loses an opportunity to express his admiration for the soldier from Sagamore Hill. Like TR, their principled independence has made them the target of some party activists, but it has won them the support of far more people across the political spectrum. Not coincidentally, they have been leading every poll of respective 2008 Republican presidential candidates over the past year, commanding the combined support of more than 50% of Republican primary voters.
After a year in which congressional scandals and profligate spending weakened the Republicans’ public support and sense of purpose, the party is casting about for a compelling vision for the post-George W. Bush years. The elections of 2006 will lay the groundwork for the sprint to 2008. It promises to be a struggle for the soul of the party, as the Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Hanna wings of the Republican Party go toe to toe in a political fight and possible reconciliation literally a century in the making.