The McKinley Problem

Which candidate most resembles Teddy Roosevelt?

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth. Aside from several bully celebrations of the late president’s life and times, this anniversary also inspired comparisons to the current slate of presidential candidates. Who best embodies the Rough Rider’s legacy: Barack Obama or John McCain?

The obvious answer to this is McCain, who is proud to identify himself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican: centrist, reasonable, devoted to fair play and American glory. And as John Avlon at Real Clear Politics explained yesterday, the similarities between McCain and his political hero are very real:

TR fought bitterly with the more conservative, big-business establishment of the GOP in his day. McCain has the scars from similar fights with the far-right of his time, whom he has pushed to modernize while reaching out to Democrats and Independents. In many ways, McCain’s conflicts with Bush and Rove reflect the same fault-lines in the GOP that existed when TR warred with McKinley campaign manager Mark Hanna - the progressive reformer versus the play-to-the-base establishment.

Obama also looks to Theodore Roosevelt as a hero, though the connections are somewhat indirect. Roosevelt was a political progressive, a vigorous man in his forties, and a leader whose presidency Obama claims to admire.

The New York Times tackled this comparison with considerable creativity yesterday morning, with Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris “interviewing” Roosevelt about this year’s presidential race, using Roosevelt’s actual words:

Q. What’s your impression of Barack Obama?

A. Unless I am greatly mistaken, the people have made up their mind that they wish some new instrument.

Q. You’re not afraid that he’s primarily a man of words? Like Woodrow Wilson, whom you once called a “Byzantine logothete”?

A. It is highly desirable that a leader of opinion in a democracy should be able to state his views clearly and convincingly.

Roosevelt was a “maverick” too; he just didn’t trip all over himself letting everyone know about it. This is the awkward thing about active politicians talking about their political heroes—it only invites comparisons. Even if, politically, John McCain is very similar to Theodore Roosevelt (belligerent on national security, environmental conservationist, political reformer, father of daughters given to unpredictable political involvement) Barack Obama is symbolically similar to TR: hard working, vigorous, young.

Despite the very real admiration McCain feels for the twenty-sixth president, Roosevelt’s political career probably ought not to be invoked too often by the McCain campaign. Demographically speaking, the problem is that McCain resembles not the vigorous twenty-sixth president of the United States, but the old man whom Roosevelt replaced in 1901. It’s the worry about this sort of thing that makes many so uncomfortable with the McCain-Palin ticket. Or, as Morris writes:

Q. Talking of foreign policy, what do you think of Mr. McCain’s choice of a female running mate?

A. Times have changed (sigh). It is entirely inexcusable, however, to try to combine the unready hand with the unbridled tongue.

Q. How will you feel if Sarah Palin is elected?

A. I shall feel exactly the way a very small frog looks when it swallows a beetle the size of itself, with extremely stiff legs.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.