Remembering a candidate who could find the center between the extremes

Marty Rochester

Our two political parties often have been criticized as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, offering voters relatively little difference in the policy positions of their presidential candidates, compared to the much clearer leadership choices presented by European parties.  

I have always felt that the Tweedledee-Tweedledum criticism was unfair, not only because at times our presidential candidates have provided “a real choice and not an echo” (e.g., the 1964 election that pitted Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater) but also because I have never understood what is wrong with a political system that lacks polarization.

Today we are in a moment of highly polarized politics, with many voters, including myself, finding both parties distasteful in the extreme choices we are being asked to consider as the 2020 presidential election approaches.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump (assuming he will not be ousted through impeachment) seems to be unchallenged for the nomination. Accurately or not, his policies have been characterized as far-right, and he himself has been characterized as far-out.  In any case, he is hardly a “normal” candidate.

On the Democratic side, we have seen candidates wage class warfare beyond anything we have witnessed in recent memory. It is true that the rich-poor gap is widening, with the top 0.1 percent now owning roughly a fifth of the nation’s wealth. At the same time, despite some volatility, the economy seems to have been on a roll under Trump, with the U.S. jobless rate hitting a 50-year low in October, the stock market for the first time hovering around 27,000, and other positive indicators cited as well.

Despite the thriving American economy, prominent Democratic candidates have proposed a massive government redistribution of wealth to help pay for new social programs such as tuition-free college, universal child care, and “Medicare for all.” This has included proposals for a 2 percent tax on households worth over $50 million, and a candidate saying he doesn’t “think billionaires should exist in the United States.” It is unclear whether any of this would be constitutional.

Even liberal economists such as Lawrence Summers have warned that wealth taxes would “undermine business confidence, reduce investment, degrade economic efficiency and punish success in ways unlikely to be good for the country” (New York Times, Oct. 2).

Contrast the choices we are being presented with today with the choices the electorate faced in 1912, at a time when there was also great concern about “the gilded age,” “plutocrats,” and “income inequality” but when the candidates offered reasoned, progressive policies between the extremes of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism and radical socialism.

In 1912, three candidates competed for the presidency — the incumbent William Taft, Teddy Roosevelt (who ran as a third-party candidate of the Progressive Party), and Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat.

I recommend reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “The Bully Pulpit,” which provides an excellent discussion of the “Progressive Era,” including the 1912 election, when Taft, Roosevelt, and Wilson all struggled with how best to address the  nation’s growing social-economic problems posed by twentieth century urban life. 

Taft’s view was very close to both Roosevelt and Wilson. On the one hand, he stated that the Republican Party stands for “the right of liberty” and for an economic system that rewards “energy, courage, enterprise, attention to duty, hard work, and thrift” rather than “laziness” and  “lack of industry,” However, he recognized, “Time was when . . . the policy which left all to the individual, unmolested and unaided by the government, was deemed the wisest. . . . [But now government had a responsibility] to further equality of opportunity.”

Wilson echoed similar language, his administration paving the way for the welfare state and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It is worth focusing, though, on Teddy Roosevelt, as an exemplar of the kind of centrist, gradualist, but forward-thinking presidential candidate we could use today.

Goodwin describes the moderation in Teddy’s ideological views over time and the search for compromise “to get things done.” 

She writes, “The reigning laissez-faire doctrine . . .  had ‘biased’ him, he later acknowledged, against all governmental schemes for the betterment of the social and industrial conditions of laborers.” Running in 1886 for New York City mayor against Henry George, a radical socialist, Roosevelt argued that “the mass of the American people are not in the deplorable condition of which you speak, and the statesmen and patriots of today are no more responsible for some people being poorer than others than they are for some people being shorter.”

Yet when he later became governor of New York, he could boast that he had helped produce “legislation establishing an eight-hour day for state employees, limiting the maximum hours women and children could work in private industry, improving working conditions for children, hiring more factory inspectors, [and other reforms].” 

Defining a middle ground between social Darwinists and left-wing populists, he asserted that “it seems to me that our attitude should be one of correcting evils and . . . [acting] as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other.” 

In January 1900, roughly a year before he was to become president, Roosevelt gave a speech stating, “In our great cities, there is plainly in evidence much wealth contrasted with much poverty and some of the wealth has been acquired or used in a manner for which there is no moral justification. . . .  We do not wish to destroy corporations; we do desire to put them fully at the service of the people.” In his first State of the Union address, he was careful to praise “the captains of industry” who “have on the whole done great good to our people” while conceding “there have been abuses connected with the accumulation of wealth.”

Do we hear either party today speaking in such balanced language calculated to “get things done”? Instead we have yelling.at the extremes. 

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on inter-national and American politics.