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The Other '04 Election By: Michael Rosen
Tech Central Station | Thursday, August 05, 2004

 TCS: Theodore Roosevelt / Alton B. Parker

Lightning may never strike twice.  But in the wake of the Democratic National Convention, both President Bush and John Kerry should take counsel from another '04 campaign -- the 1904 battle between Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, and Judge Alton B. Parker, a Democrat. 

Striking similarities, many of them downright eerie, abound between the two '04's in realms foreign and domestic, beginning with the event that launched Roosevelt's presidency.  Then, as now, the nation reacted with shock and horror when a monstrous act of murder took place in New York in September of '01 -- the fatal shooting of President William McKinley in Buffalo on September 6, 1901, that elevated then-Vice President Roosevelt to the White House.  This early act of terrorism was perpetrated by Leon Czolgosz, an exponent of a nihilistic ideology, anarchism, that justified civilian murder in the service of radical change.


Then, as now, America was embarking on a dramatic, new course of international affairs in response to changing geopolitical circumstances.  Teddy Roosevelt engaged a policy of "neo-imperialism," an expansion of American power and values to parts of the world previously in thrall to classical imperialist forces.  According to Edmund Morris' brilliant biography of Roosevelt, expansion, which many if not most Democrats opposed, spelled a "program of acquisition, democratization, and liberation."  Much the same substance and rhetoric informs contemporary foreign policy.


Then in the Philippines, as now in Iraq, American troops struggled to bring order and freedom to a land that had experienced neither, while guerrilla warriors and Muslim extremists stood in the way.  Much of the American public, the chancelleries of Europe, and the Congress -- especially the "anti-imperialist" Democrats -- clamored for the U.S. to transfer sovereignty and end its occupation, both objectives the U.S. met, although not without difficulty.  Indeed, the divide over Roosevelt's unique -- his opponents would have said "megalomaniacal" -- way of conducting foreign policy fell neatly along party lines.


On the domestic front, a booming economy began to erase memories of an earlier recession while many Americans considered whether, amid technological advances and expanding international commerce, things would ever be the same.  Debates over how to protect U.S. jobs while empowering American consumers festered in Congressional deliberations over trade and tariff policy.  Then, too, the integrity of corporate America came into question as combinations and trusts increasingly began to dominate industry.


Partisanship seemed as shrill then as now with Roosevelt thundering that the Democrats "seem at a loss, both as to what it is that they really believe, and as to how firmly they shall assert their belief in anything," while Parker, feeding at the trough of anti-Roosevelt sentiment among Democrats, accused the Republican leadership of "a shameless exhibition of a willingness to make compromise with dignity."  Thus, in 1904, like today, important political and economic cleavages bitterly divided the parties while the nation faced significant challenges at home and abroad. 


To be sure, important differences persist between the two '04's.  President Roosevelt labored under the shadow of a challenge from the right by Senator Mark Hanna -- the candidate of Wall Street and "Old Guard" Republicanism.  Although Hanna died early in 1904, not until late in the campaign did the "right wing" of the Republican party come around to fully support Teddy.  Today, while frustrations among the party's conservative and libertarian wings simmer beneath the surface, President Bush stands alone among Republican candidates, having united the various wings of the party behind him.


In addition, Judge Parker's candidacy was, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster.  Parker, like Roosevelt, was constrained by the prevalent custom forbidding presidential candidates from campaigning.  But more importantly, his blandness failed to inspire the party faithful who would ordinarily rally round their nominee.  In 2004, while John Kerry has not exactly become famous for his charisma, he stands athwart a party chomping at the bit to remove President Bush from office.  The selection of John Edwards as Kerry's running mate has, if nothing else, injected some excitement into the Democratic ticket.  This year, unlike in 1904, the Party of Jackson will surely mount a concerted and energetic battle.


Still, both parties can glean important lessons from the 1904 race, which ended with the landslide election of Roosevelt: 56% of the popular vote and 336 electoral votes to Parker's 38% and 140;  Parker captured only the "blue" states of the solidly Democratic South.


President Bush must harness to his campaign the vision of America's role in the world that he articulated in his speech last November at the National Endowment for Democracy.  In the midst of both promising opportunity and lurking danger in Iraq, the president must forcefully and clearly explain where we have gone wrong and, more importantly, how we can and will succeed in our mission there.  Bush should rally the faithful while persuading the skeptical of what his administration regards as the United States's unprecedented ability, and profound responsibility, to effect positive global change while, at the same time, defending our citizens and homeland from further attacks.  Perhaps most importantly, the president must demonstrate the humility Roosevelt may have lacked while staying true to principle.


For his part, Senator Kerry should avoid the mere "oppositionism" that, in part, doomed Parker.  The antiwar left of 2004, like the "solid South" of 1904, will never vote Republican.  While not taking this built-in base for granted, Kerry must continue to court those undecideds who are wary of President Bush's leadership but disdain shrill attacks.  As evidenced by the convention, the Democrats are quite confident in their base and are making an all-out effort to capture Ohio, Florida, and other swing states that voted Republican in 2000.  Kerry must also continue, as he began to do in Thursday Night's address, to develop a positive, independent vision of what America can become under his stewardship.  Slogans like "Let America Be America Again" and "Stronger at Home, Respected in the World" will only go so far.


In the end, however, the actions and ideas displayed by the candidates on the stump may prove insignificant given the forces that circumstance has exerted on the nation and on the world.  As in 1904, the U.S. has embarked on a new global voyage as a matter of opportunity and necessity; Democrats will find it difficult if not impossible to reverse the tide sweeping us almost inexorably into international waters.  Globalization has rendered our economy largely dependent on that of the world - and vice versa.  And the need to expand freedom and opportunity to places where they are lacking may surmount attempts to change course.  While Republicans have traditionally been the party of nostalgia, this year Kerry and the Democrats have displayed a longing for the halcyon years of the pre-9/11 Nineties.  Unfortunately, the world has changed dramatically and so have American priorities and challenges.


Whether history will repeat itself remains to be seen.  The 2004 election campaign, in style and substance, has already differed markedly from its hundred-year predecessor.  It is highly unlikely that this year's contest will result in a landslide.  But both the president and his challenger can only benefit from a close study of the important lessons of 1904.

Michael M. Rosen, an attorney in San Diego, taught in Harvard's government department from 2001-2003.

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