(Host) Both the candidates and the media have billed this Presidential
election as a clear choice between two visions of the role of government
in the lives of individual Americans. Teacher, historian, and
commentator Vic Henningsen looks back to a similar set of circumstances –
one hundred years ago.
(Henningsen) In 1912 Americans were
treated to a rare event: a four-way contest for the Presidency that
spanned the entire political spectrum. Incumbent President William
Howard Taft ran as what today we would call a moderate Republican;
Democrat Woodrow Wilson occupied the center-right – Democrats were still
the party of small government then. Former President Theodore Roosevelt
had created a third, center-left, party, the Progressives; and on the
far left were the Socialists, led by veteran labor agitator Eugene Debs.
was during the Progressive Era. Anti-trust legislation, regulatory
agencies, workplace safety and child labor laws, environmental
protection, and attention to things like food and drug safety rules all
characterized the Progressive effort to protect average citizens from
the negative consequences of the rise of industrialism.
centered on Roosevelt and Wilson’s debate over the role of government
in American life. TR accepted big business as a fact of modern life and
sought to regulate its behavior. Calling his plan the "New
Nationalism", Roosevelt favored a robust partnership between government
and private enterprise that would use public regulatory commissions to
monitor big business.
Wilson regarded new concentrations of
wealth and power as fundamentally unfair and sought to break up business
trusts to make the American economy a level playing field. Advocating
what he termed the "New Freedom," Wilson called for more active use of
existing legislation like anti-trust laws, rather than more government
bureaucracy, as the best way to protect the public interest.
Roosevelt and Wilson provided substantial detail about their competing
plans and Americans went to the polls more fully informed about the
issues than at any time since the election of 1860. Wilson won and
ushered in the most intensive period of government reform before the New
Deal, adopting, as it happened, TR’s ideas to create new agencies like
the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission.
contest also presents a choice. If Obama wins, Affordable Health Care
and the financial regulation embodied in the Dodd-Frank law will be
firmly entrenched in American life. Romney promises to reduce
government’s role and let free enterprise restore American greatness.
neither presents detailed explanations of their programs. Their
specifically vague and vaguely specific statements, with their airy
appeals to the legacy of Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, are reminiscent
not of 1912, but of 1920, when Republican Warren Harding campaigned and
won on the fuzzy promise of a "Return to Normalcy."
pol whose main qualification for office was that he looked presidential,
Harding referred to his own oratory as "bloviating." One observer
described a Harding speech as "an army of platitudes marching back and
forth across the landscape in search of an idea."
quite that bad, today’s candidates do us a disservice in their
assumption that, contrary to 1912, we can’t handle the details.