Politics: What TR Would Have Made of Bush/Cheney

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Mr. Herman is Assistant Professor of History at Central Washington University and author of Hunting and the American Imagination (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).

A century ago Americans, led by their new Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, left behind the excesses of the Gilded Age and entered the Progressive Era. The Gilded Age was a time when plutocrats and corporations dominated society and manipulated government. The Progressive Era was a time when middle-class reformers regained control of their society. Progressives pushed through legislation to protect workers; to conserve natural resources and wildlife; to create national parks and monuments; to require democratic primary elections and the direct election of senators; to give women the vote; to create progressive income and estate taxes; to break up or monitor trusts; and to regulate utilities, railroads, food, and drugs. TR did not endorse all these reforms, but he had a hand in most of them.

One wonders what TR would say about the current Republican administration, which bids fair to take us back to the Gilded Age. Drug companies are free to charge extortionate prices; standards for arsenic content in water have been lifted; ergonomic regulations for workplaces have been dumped; mining companies have been told that they need not post bonds for toxic cleanups; wildlife refuges and roadless areas in national forests may be opened to drilling, mining, and logging; power producers have been assured that the sky is the limit when it comes to what rates they can charge; and, most astonishingly, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have ignored electoral reform.

The gulf between TR and Bush/Cheney is immense. TR knew that a ''great State can not rely on mere unrestricted individualism, any more than it can afford to crush out all individualism''; hence TR worked to ameliorate the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism. Bush/Cheney, by contrast, believe that individualism?that is, the rights of corporations, which are legally defined as individuals?cannot be restricted.

Because they make a fetish of the free market, Bush/Cheney steadfastly refused until pushed by California Party leaders to allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to cap energy prices at a reasonable level, thus permitting power producers to sell their product to California at a 5000 percent profit. The Bush/Cheney argument against the price cap went like this: price caps are legal; price caps have historical precedent; but they would reduce the incentive for power companies to build new generating plants. What would TR have done in the same situation? He would have used his big stick to force the power companies to lower prices. No corporation, he once told the steel magnate, J.P. Morgan, should think itself more powerful than the United States government. ''Trusts,'' explained TR, ''are creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them, but it is in duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown.''

TR would have seen Bush and Cheney for what they are: plutocratic ideologues who fetishize the free market.

Roosevelt understood that this country embraces the free market not because it rewards the few but because it rewards the many. The profit incentive is good for society insofar as it creates jobs and prosperity. When leaders make the free market into a religion, however, they lose sight of the fact that the market is an instrument of the people rather than an end in itself. Where the free market fails the people?as in the current power crisis in the West?it must be regulated. Not forever. Not in a fascist way. But in the current situation, temporary regulation serves the nation.

The refusal to set price caps on energy until pressured is part of a larger pattern. Like Gilded Age politicians, Bush and Cheney believe that our free market economy and our republican government are meant to provide fantastic wealth for the few rather than widespread benefits for the many. So sacred is the free market to Bush and Cheney that the government must obey its dictates rather than vice versa. Each of Bush/Cheney's Gilded Age policies follow from that simple logic. Indeed, the free market, according to the political bible of Bush and Cheney, is more sacred, more mystical, than the sovereign will of the American people. That is why Bush and Cheney were so eager to fight recounts in Florida; that is why they have done nothing to mend an election system that counts more votes of those who are prosperous than those who are poor; that is why Bush and Cheney are perfectly at ease with a system that, by disfranchising a few thousand voters in one state (and not just Florida), disfranchises tens of millions in the other forty-nine. To Bush and Cheney, the free market, not democratic elections, defines America.

A year or so before the next presidential election, Bush and Cheney will pretend again to be ''reformers with results,'' just as they did in 2000. Meanwhile, they feverishly work to please their corporate sponsors. Thus Bush and Cheney seek to delay or jettison the Clinton administration's roadless area proposal, a proposal that, far from being a midnight decision, was made after 1.6 million public comments and hundreds of public hearings. Thus Bush and Cheney have repealed the Clinton administration's 10 ppb arsenic standard for drinking water, the standard that, though recommended by the National Academy of Sciences after years of study, and though adopted by the European Economic Union and the World Health Organization, does not suit the American mining industry. Thus Bush and Cheney have made lowering income taxes for the wealthy, including themselves, the centerpiece of their legislative agenda. Let's just call it, in the words of George Plunkett, ''honest graft.''

With the $1.35 trillion tax cut (which will actually be much larger, minus smoke and mirrors), Bush and Cheney pay back political debts to their wealthy supporters. Just think of the huge returns that a multi-millionaire stands to receive on a mere $1000 investment in the Bush campaign! By dispensing trillions to the wealthy, moreover, Bush and Cheney lay to rest any fears that the government will recognize quality medical care as a right of every American. Just when we have funds for national health insurance, poof, they are gone. Nor need anyone worry that the widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy few and the working many will suddenly narrow. Bush and Cheney have come to the rescue of the privileged few by abolishing the estate tax, a cornerstone of Progressive Era reform that, for almost a century, has helped keep our society from becoming a full-fledged aristocracy.

TR would have seen Bush and Cheney for what they are: plutocratic ideologues who fetishize the free market. TR understood what today's Republican leaders choose to forget: that refusing to regulate the free market is just as evil as doing away with the free market altogether. Will the Republicans in 2004 find another TR to save both them and the nation? Will the United States again embrace progressivism, as it did in 1901? Alone among Republicans, John McCain crusades to remake the GOP into the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, the party of progressive, sane, limited reform. But, like James Jeffords, Senator McCain has been marginalized by the ideologues in his party. In the brave, new Gilded Age of Bush and Cheney, McCain's wish may well be a pipe dream.

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