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McCain: The next Teddy Roosevelt?

McCain's Republican role model is Theodore Roosevelt, a choice that distresses his party's right-wing base.

When asked for a role model, Republican office-seekers usually cite Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, said Adam Nagourney and Michael Cooper in The New York Times. Not John McCain. Instead, McCain says his White House will be guided by Theodore Roosevelt’s spirit of reform. The choice makes sense, since Roosevelt, like McCain, was a heroic war veteran with an assertive foreign policy but centrist—even progressive—domestic policies. Nonetheless, McCain’s apostasy has “provoked anguished hand-wringing” from conservatives, said Joshua Hawley in National Review Online, since they think of TR as a big-government “closet socialist.” Now, Roosevelt was clearly no Reagan, but his instincts and values were thoroughly conservative. He believed strongly in personal responsibility, used government to promote “strong marriages” and “a robust civil society,” and called upon Americans “to temper their self-interest and serve the common good.”

Yes, TR had strong values, said Michael Knox Beran in National Review, but “conservatism, alas, wasn’t one of them.” Like McCain, he was a warrior at heart, and it’s not surprising that he identifies with the Rough Rider who led his troops up San Juan Hill. But as president, he gave in to the populist sentiment of the times and “embraced a host of rather dubious reforms.” His regulation of the railroads through the Interstate Commerce Commission eventually ruined them, giving us Amtrak instead of numerous private companies. By establishing the Food and Drug Administration, Roosevelt principally helped the meatpackers, who got taxpayer-subsidized help in ensuring the quality of their product. Rather than use government to promote free markets, Roosevelt wielded antitrust laws like a weapon, and gleefully hunted big businesses as if he were on a safari, trying “to bag big game.” If he wants conservative votes, McCain “would do best to talk more about Ronald Reagan and less about Theodore Roosevelt.”

Actually, it’s already too late for McCain to rebrand himself, said John Halpin and John Podesta in Politico.com. Invoking the ghost of Reagan won’t convince conservatives he’s one of them, nor will summoning the spirit of TR help McCain salvage his “maverick status.” McCain gave that image away when, to appease the party’s right-wing base, he embraced Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, offshore oil drilling, “and a permanent war in Iraq.” This sudden lurch to the right has left McCain with but one brand on his hindquarters—a “W,” and in 2008, that’s not a good ranch to be from.

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