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TR: The conservatives' new demon

By Michael Gerson
Friday, February 26, 2010; A25

Such is the zeal in portions of the tea party right that it is not enough to sweep out living members of the establishment such as John McCain. A brisk, ideological scrubbing must be applied to history as well.

So Glenn Beck, speaking recently at the Conservative Political Action Conference, identified a great enemy of human freedom as . . . Teddy Roosevelt. Beck highlighted this damning Roosevelt quote: "We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used."

Ah, you don't discern the scandal in this statement? Look closer. "This is not our Founders' idea of America," explained Beck. "And this is the cancer that's eating at America. It is big government -- it's a socialist utopia." Evidently, real conservatives defend wealth that is dishonorably gained and then wasted.

The problem with America, apparently, is not just the Great Society or even the New Deal; it is the Square Deal. Or maybe Beck is just being too timid. Real, hairy-chested libertarians pin the blame on Abraham Lincoln, who centralized federal power at the expense of the states to pursue an unnecessary war -- a view that Ron Paul, the winner of the CPAC presidential straw poll, has endorsed.

Lincoln doesn't need defenders against accusations of tyranny -- the mere charge is enough to diagnose some sad ideological disorder. But the Rough Rider also does not deserve such roughing up.

TR picked a number of fights with conservative Republicans, fight-picking being his favorite sport. But Roosevelt hated socialism. "It would spell sheer destruction," he said. "It would produce grosser wrong and outrage, fouler immorality, than any existing system." Modern corporate capitalism, he believed, was inevitable, even admirable. But he also believed that overly centralized and unaccountable power in a capitalist system creates destructive clashes of labor and capital, rich and poor. So he busted monopolistic trusts, imposed health standards on filthy meatpacking plants and promoted a more professional, merit-based civil service.

Roosevelt's progressivism could sound a bit like socialism. When courts struck down laws allowing strikes and limiting maximum work hours, Roosevelt warned, "If the spirit which lies behind these . . . decisions obtained in all the actions of the . . . courts, we should not only have a revolution, but it would be absolutely necessary to have a revolution because the condition of the worker would become intolerable."

But it was Roosevelt's political purpose to avoid a revolution. He sought to preserve the market system by regulating its health, safety and fairness. This is not laissez faire, but it is an authentic conservative tradition -- the use of incremental reform to diffuse radicalism. And few today would wish to return to 19th-century labor, health and antitrust standards.

All those few, however, seemed to be in attendance at CPAC, determined to sharpen an ideological debate. In the name of constitutional purity, they propose a great undoing. Not just the undoing of Obamaism. Undo Medicare and Social Security. Undo the expansive American global commitments that proceeded from World War II and the Cold War. Undo progressive-era economic regulations. Undo the executive power grab that preserved the union. Undo it all -- until America is left with a government appropriate to an isolated, 18th-century farming republic.

This is a proposal for time travel, not a policy agenda. The federal government could not shed these accumulated responsibilities without massive suffering and global instability -- a decidedly radical, unconservative approach to governing.

The alternative remains a reform conservatism, of which Teddy Roosevelt is a distinguished ancestor. Since the repeal of modernity is not an option, make modern institutions work. Update Medicare and Social Security to encourage market choices and ownership. Bust the public education trust with charters and competition. Diffuse radicalism with reform.

The debate between conservative doers and undoers is ideologically interesting, but in the political realm there is little debate. A candidate running recently in Virginia, New Jersey or Massachusetts on a Beck/Paul platform would have duplicated Ron Paul's results during his 1988 presidential run. (Paul gained less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote.) All the Republican winners in these states promised the reform of government, not its abolition.

But I fear that the undoers may resemble Teddy Roosevelt in one disturbing aspect. This I have against the Rough Rider: In the 1912 election, he betrayed his friend William H. Taft and his party by running as a third-party candidate. In his hubris, TR believed that neither party met his own exacting standards of purity. The attitude is familiar today.

mgerson@globalengage.org

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