On the presidential campaign trail in 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain regularly invoked Theodore Roosevelt as his role model. “I count myself as a conservative Republican, yet I view it to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold,” McCain told the New York Times in 2008.
Channeling T.R. certainly has appeal for both Republicans and Democrats. Who other than perhaps a small-government Libertarian wouldn’t want to associate with the memory of one of the four presidents on Mt. Rushmore, a man arguably one of the greatest of the great presidents?
But by invoking Roosevelt as a model, McCain, in very many ways an exemplary individual and once upon a time a true maverick, is guilty of historical malpractice. The politics of our nation’s capitol today, and the distinguished senator from Arizona is part of it all, are as removed from the democracy Teddy Roosevelt embraced as Phoenix is removed from an ice flow. One need only look at this week’s news to understand the difference.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon waltzed into and out of a Senate Banking Committee hearing Wednesday suffering hardly a PR scratch despite the $2 billion plus his bank lost recently in risky financial bets. Washington’s favorite big banker did comment that some of his current and former underlings at the nation’s biggest (or maybe second biggest) financial institution might have to return some of their compensation and Dimon smoothly quoted Harry Truman on where the buck stops. (No commitment from the buck stops here guy as to whether any of his paycheck might be in jeopardy.)
In the big picture, as Congressional hearings go, Jamie Dimon before the Senate Banking Committee was a Beltway cake walk. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint helped set the tone when he said to the banker, “The intent here is really not to sit in judgment.” Got it.
It is substantially easier, I guess, for members of Congress to ask tough questions of former baseball players who might have used certain banned substances than to ask a really tough question of the biggest banker on Wall Street in the wake of the biggest financial crisis in 75 years. I wonder if Rafael Palmeiro, the steroid-abusing, once-a sure-thing Hall of Fame baseball player, who testified under oath before Congress about his transgressions was glued to C-Span for Dimon’s questioning? Palmerio a small-time drug abuser got the wire brush treatment. Jamie Dimon a big-time player who has opposed many regulations of the banking industry got an air kiss.
The other big money news this week was that Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has decided to further exercise his free speech rights and start spending millions on the Super PAC backing Mitt Romney. The numbers are stunning. So far, Adelson has written checks for $35 million and his minions tell Forbes he may be in the campaign for “unlimited” amounts.
There seems to be little doubt now that the 2012 election will involve billions – billions with a B – of dollars in unregulated, often unreported money from literally a handful of high rollers who, because of their personal financial balance sheets, are able to lavish dollars on the candidates and causes they support – or oppose.
In terms of the presidential election the United States has become, or is dangerously close to becoming, a Banana Republic where the biggest checkbook wins the day. Oligarchs spend money, control the media and determine the course of Russian politics. Can we seriously be that far away? Even the campaigns that benefit from all this lavish spending must be wondering if they can control the essential messages of their own campaigns when some kazillionaire has decided to fund a political action committee and own a few television stations.
All of this has happened thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the now infamous Citizens United case and that bring us full circle back to Teddy Roosevelt. The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, opened the floodgates to all the unregulated, independent and corporate spending by overturning a century of established law, a law dating back to – that’s right – the Old Rough Rider.
Roosevelt, of course, famously spoke of the threat imposed upon a democratic society by what he called “malefactors of great wealth,” but he also said, “The death-knell of the republic had rung as soon as the active power became lodged in the hands of those who sought, not to do justice to all citizens, rich and poor alike, but to stand for one special class and for its interests as opposed to the interests of others.”
As to the big banks, Roosevelt – he was the Trust Buster after all – would not have stopped at bemoaning their enormous influence over our economy and public policy. JPMorgan and the other top four biggest banks essentially control 56% of the entire U.S. economy. Roosevelt would have acted, he would have broken up the biggest banks in the interest of a capitalist system that resists giving so much control of the economy to so few people.
But that approach is not an option in these times, even given the continuing danger to the U.S. and world economy presented by JPMorgan-like risk taking. Mention breaking up the big banks or re-regulating them as T.R.’s distant relative did in the 1930s and you won’t be invited back to a Georgetown cocktail party.
In his justly famous New Nationalism speech in 1910 – President Obama tried and mostly failed to capture some of the same Rooseveltian quality in his own recent economic speech – the 26th president said:
“At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. That is nothing new.”
It is nothing new. Just over a hundred years ago, the United States had a political leader summoning the country to a higher standard of accountability and behavior. T.R. was a trust buster and an advocate for reducing the enormous reach of money in our politics. There is no one sounding his clarion call today, or if they are their voices are lost in background noise that only money can buy.
Ask yourself, “What would T.R. do?” The great president’s record from 100 years ago tells us and the answer has almost nothing to do with what is happening in our politics in 2012.