- By Mark R. KennedyMark R. Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A Manhattan millionaire with a personality bigger than life bursts onto America’s political scene with a populist message that the system is unfair to the little guy, the moneyed interests are in control of Washington, and that no one but he can address the sorry state America finds itself in. He sucks all the oxygen out of his opponents’ campaigns. He confounds the establishment and seems to be an unstoppable force.
I, of course, speak of Theodore Roosevelt. We sometimes forget that Roosevelt was the rebel of his time. He did not toe the party line. Roosevelt challenged the status quo. He was not captive to the interests that constrained traditional party leaders. Let’s be honest: Roosevelt evoked the same response from many establishment Republicans in Albany that Donald Trump stirs up today in Washington. The reason the Republicans put Roosevelt on the ticket as McKinley’s Vice President was to sideline him.
Does Trump deserve to claim Roosevelt’s legacy?
Both Roosevelt and Trump followed economic periods where a few prospered, but many suffered. Both of their messages address the economic angst of the working class. Roosevelt called for breaking up the trusts that were at the very core of the Republican fundraising machine of the 1900s. Trump confronts today’s donor class with talk of tax increases that challenges the party’s orthodoxy in ways that appeals to many middle class voters.
People understand now, as then, that the status quo is broken, that we must try something new. The popularity of both Roosevelt and Trump comes from their boldness in acknowledging this fact.
Then, is Trump the heir to the Rough Rider legacy? Let us consider the essence of what Roosevelt achieved and how much Trump embraces his heritage.
Though not without his flaws, Roosevelt deserves to be considered one of America’s most consequential presidents as a result of his embrace of conservation and three bold actions that presidential candidates would be wise to emulate.
1) Trust Busting. By confronting the entrenched interests that dominated both the economy and his party to break up the monopolies that ruled the day, Roosevelt unleashed the competition that animates America’s economic might. Roosevelt broke up John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and the railroad trust attempted by J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, and Minnesota’s own James J. Hill. Few recognize how difficult this was to achieve. Few realize how few countries have matched this accomplishment. In this one step, Roosevelt coopted his political opposition, advanced the power of markets, loosened monopolistic strangleholds, and positioned America for long-term global leadership.
An equivalent today is to confront the rigidities in our public education system that prevents many from being prepared for the modern economy. This means being willing to stand up to the teacher unions and actively advocating school choice, rewarding our best teachers, and tenure reform.
Roosevelt’s trust busting ensured that the best offerings prevailed. As a result, American workers are among the most competitive in the world. Trade liberalization ensures the best prevail on the global stage. Since we have the most open economy, American workers benefit from lowering the barriers of others.
Trump has been largely silent on school choice and mostly critical in speaking about trade.
2) The Great White Fleet and 3) the Panama Canal. Roosevelt’s call to “speak softly and carry a big stick” was backed up by investing in the stick. He took the bold action to build the Panama Canal so the American fleet — that “stick” — could reach both oceans. He also sought to have the easy flow of commerce between the east and west coast build our economy and tie us together.
The equivalent today is to recognize that though America remains the greatest nation the world will ever see, we are not an outsized behemoth able to simply “fire” allies or dismiss countries that challenge us as “losers.” A soft voice is best. Yet, the irreplaceable role we play in preserving peace requires that we burnish our stick and strengthen our economy by getting our debt under control, ending the regulations surge, and reforming a burdensome tax code.
Trump certainly fails the “speaking softly” test. He seems too busy belittling our allies and infuriating our rivals to talk about serious matters like entitlement, regulatory, and tax reform. Trump appears addicted to populist rants and allergic to serious policy proposals.
Trump frets about China overtaking America and is anxious to call them an “enemy.” Rather than upping the ante to make China surpass a North American hurdle by strengthening our economic alliance Canada and Mexico, Trump is preoccupied with demonizing our southern neighbor. Trump ignores the potential for the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to fortify the rules based trading system that has been a source of American vigor.
Rather than Roosevelt’s negotiation of a treaty between Russia and Japan that protected America’s interest, Trump says, “if [Russia] want[s] our dime they had better do our dance” — fun to say, but this type of bluster only bolsters Putin’s nationalist-fueled grip.
Trump fails to recognize a truth that Roosevelt embodied — politics is a game of addition or multiplication, not subtraction or division. Trump disqualifies himself as the successor of Roosevelt by his fixation on dividing, appealing to people’s base fears, rather than calling them to a embrace a path that lifts them up without tearing others down.
Roosevelt was fond of saying, “There is always the tendency to believe that a hundred small men can furnish leadership equal to that of one big man. This is not so.” The American presidency matters! Let us hope we can find a big man or woman who, like Roosevelt, can activate the bold actions necessary to return our nation on a path to prosperity and leadership. Trump is not that man.
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