Starring the Tea Party as William Howard Taft

Jonathan Rauch has an fascinating piece on how the upcoming 2012 General Election is in effect part two of the 1912 election:

The Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, was a conservative traditionalist who saw the Constitution as providing a short leash on federal power. He faced no fewer than three significant opponents that year, the most formidable being none other than his Republican predecessor in the White House: Theodore Roosevelt had come to believe that a narrow view of federal power left Washington unable to cope with the challenges of the industrial age. He broke with Taft to lead a new party of his own, the Progressive Party.

Jumping on the same bandwagon but shrewdly presenting more mainstream alternative, Democrats nominated a progressive of their own, Woodrow Wilson. And there was an important fourth candidate, the Socialist Party’s Eugene V. Debs, who led American socialism to its only respectable electoral performance: 6 percent of the popular vote.

Roosevelt’s progressives believed that only a stronger, more centralized national government, vigorously led by a powerful presidency, could cope with giant corporations and the increasingly national — indeed, global — economy. Expert-led bureaucracies would guide a newly empowered Washington away from cronyism and toward innovative, impartial solutions.

The Constitution, the progressives insisted, was no pair of rusty shackles. It must flex to accommodate the people’s desires and the nation’s needs. “The people are the masters of their Constitution,” declared the Progressive Party’s 1912 platform. The country’s “resources, its business, its institutions and its laws should be utilized, maintained or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest.”

Taft opposed all those principles. He argued for localism, limited government and a constitution that worked like a brake, not an accelerator. The progressives, he warned, would demolish the government’s “checks upon hasty popular action.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. Taft lost the election big time, and while Roosevelt lost, he basically won the argument. That set forth the expansion of federal power in American society that has held until this very day.

But a few mainstream writers have begun to see how the progressive era might be winding down. Robert Samuelson notes that the old order, which he describes as the modern welfare state that has been in place since the closing days of WWII is crumbling:

The old order, constructed by most democracies after World War II, rested on three pillars. One was the welfare state. Government would protect the unemployed, aged, disabled and poor. Capitalism would be tamed. A second was faith in economic growth; this would raise everyone’s living standards while permitting income redistribution. Growth was ordained, because economists had learned enough from the 1930s to cure periodic recessions. Finally, global trade and finance served countries’ mutual interests.

All three pillars are wobbling. To be sure, the financial crisis worsened matters, and each country’s situation is different. America’s welfare state is less generous than Germany’s. Greece‘s crisis began because it had vastly underreported its budget deficit; Ireland’s stemmed from a burst housing bubble that led to a costly bank bailout. But these differences obscure large similarities.

Start with the welfare state. A blessing to many, it’s also a common burden. Its expansion was huge. In 1950, government spending as a share of a nation’s economy (gross domestic product) was 28 percent in France, 30 percent in Germany and 21 percent in the United States. By 1999, figures were 52 percent of GDP in France, 48 percent in Germany and 30 percent in the United States, according to the late economics historian Angus Maddison. Aging societies would boost future costs for social security and health care. From 2008 to 2050, the 65- plus population is projected to rise 40 percent in Germany, 77 percent in France and 121 percent in the United States.

Given this outlook, even countries without immediate crises are embracing austerity measures. All face a ruinous choice: The higher taxes or deficits needed to finance more welfare spending might further damage the economy, but cutting benefits stirs popular backlash. Still, benefits are now vulnerable. Ireland cut benefits for the unemployed by about 10 percent, reduced child payments by 16 percent and, beginning in 2014, will gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 68.

Enter the Tea Party.  Just as we saw their predecessor in 1912 try to fight off an ascendent progressivism, we see them now as progressivism is at its nadir.

Does this mean the Taft/Tea Party side is now on the right side of history?  Probably not.  But the rise of Tea Party means that the old progressive order no longer makes sense in the 21st century. 

Teddy Roosevelt could see the changes in the nation and made the case for strong federal government.  Do we have a TR for our time that can see the changes coming down the road in economics and tailor a government to fit the times.

I don’t think the Tea Party’s rigid constitutionalism is the answer, but they are a sign that what has worked for a century isn’t going to work anymore.

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