1912 and All That

At the centennial of the 1912 election, pundits and politicos tell us, we again
confront a constitutional moment. For the Right, the existential choice is between entrepreneurialism or social democracy, America or Europe. For the Left, it is between the 99 and 1 percent or, in President Obama’s less unhinged version, between a common future that’s “built to last” and unbridled, destructive capitalism. In a much-noted speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “New Nationalism” speech, Mr. Obama explicitly identified his program with Roosevelt’s agenda of progress and control over corporate power, and the coming election with that of 1912.

Sid Milkis’s fine book on the 1912 contest lends modest support to the analogy. For the most part, however, it documents the stark differences—above all, on the small matter of the Constitution.

1912 really was a constitutional moment. In fact, it was the last presidential election in which the Constitution took center-stage and in which a candidate, the incumbent President William Howard Taft, articulated a coherent defense of the instrument. He did so against three rivals: Roosevelt, who waged a militant campaign against constititutional forms and for such populist measures as recalls and referenda; the eventual winner, Woodrow Wilson, who had no more regard for the Constitution than any other Princeton professor but, having decided to run as the sane man’s version of TR, was on his best behavior during the campaign; and the Socialist Eugene Debs.

In 2012, the count of constitutionalist contenders stands at zero. President Obama supposedly taught the stuff, but no evidence suggests that he cared or cares. Mr. Romney insists that a health care mandate is good for Massachusetts but bad for the country; however, one does not get the sense that he could or would want to defend his “federalism” for more than thirty seconds. Mr. Paul brandishes the American Constitution, but only insofar as it seems to vindicate his Austrian beliefs; he cannot tell the Founders from a horde of monkeys who accidentally typed “vonmises.” Mr. Santorum probably understands, but he is far behind. That leaves the case for the Constitution in the hands of the historian from FreddieMac.

Alas, it is Mr. Gingrich, not the President, who most resembles Theodore Roosevelt: the same megalomania and bombast; the same urge to play the populist card against the (federal) courts; the same conflation of American greatness with daring sorties in Absurdistan; the same delusion that a president can run a deliberately fragmented government and a rambunctious country according to a more rational plan and model (a military encampment in Mr. Roosevelt’s case, TQM or Six Sigma in Mr. Gingrich’s).

Roosevelt and Gingrich share yet another trait—that of alarming the Republican establishment. Back then, however, the GOP had a leadership that rose to defend the party’s orthodoxy and especially the Constitution. William Schambra provides a terrific account of Henry Cabot Lodge’s and Elihu Root’s determined campaign, culminating at the party’s Chicago Convention, to save the GOP and its proud history from a madman, even at the price of making Roosevelt bolt and of losing the election. (Taft, of course, did lose, carrying only Utah and Vermont. But the GOP would get to fight again and win and govern capably until the Depression, and the Constitution—Chief Justice Taft’s Constitution—would retain force until circa 1938 and the appointments of Justices Black, Reed, and Frankfurter.)

Forget 1912. Our politics no longer works that way. And we no longer have politicians who can recognize the Constitution, let alone defend it.