Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, June 20, 2011

A quiet race for a quieter presidency

Last week’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire was a quiet affair.

Emotions flickered only when they spoke about the pick-pocket presidency of Barack Obama. The moderates blamed him for America’s misfortune, for losing its way and drifting near the tricky shores of Greece. The radicals blamed the other presidents since Ronald Reagan as well.

The candidates displayed the civility of a boys choir; sweet sounds for privileged ears. Joe Klein captured well the problem this harmonious gather will be facing some months down the road.

But if the debate lacked flash, it was instructive. It set the ideological parameters for the coming campaign. The candidates locked themselves in a philosophical space about the size of Rush Limbaugh's radio studio. It took nearly an hour before any of them spoke well of a government program, when Herman Cain grudgingly acknowledged that the Food and Drug Administration's meat and vegetable inspections were probably a good thing. At one point, Romney made this statement: "I think fundamentally there are some people — and most of them are Democrats, but not all — who really believe that the government knows how to do things better than the private sector. And they happen to be wrong." Which raised the possibility that Romney might want to privatize the military. Everything else certainly seems to be on the table — Cain wants to privatize Social Security; Gingrich wants to privatize NASA; most seem willing to voucherize Medicare along Congressman Paul Ryan's lines.”

Not one candidate came close to the vision of the presidency enunciated 100 years ago by the Theodore Roosevelt, the 20th century’s most influential Republican president. He created the modern presidency that every contemporary Republican presidential candidate seems determined to dismantle. Sean Wilentz review of “The Pride of Teddy Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris captures Roosevelt’s ambition:

“Roosevelt, on the contrary, looked back to the Civil War era, understood the federal government’s potential capacity for serving the common good, and insisted that ‘the sphere of the State’s action may be vastly increased without in any way diminishing the happiness of either the many or the few.’ He naturally viewed the presidency as the center of that action: ‘I believe in a strong executive; I believe in power,’ he said.”

Roosevelt, in 1912, believed in social insurance, workers’ compensation, women’s suffrage, an inheritance tax, and a national health service. Is it any wonder that today’s Republican presidential candidates can’t recall a great Republican president prior to Ronald Reagan?

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