TR and the Two Candidates

TR and the Two Candidates

By John Avlon - October 27, 2008

One-hundred and fifty years after his birth, to the day, Theodore Roosevelt still plays an outsized role in our politics. The man who his daughter described as wanting to be "the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral" would be pleased.

Both McCain and Obama cite TR as an inspiration, but for very different reasons.

McCain's identification with TR is complete - when pushed for a definition of his political philosophy, McCain describes himself as a "Teddy Roosevelt Republican" - shorthand for a strong-on-national security, pro-environment, political reformer.

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.

John Avlon

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