John McCain and Teddy Roosevelt—One of These Men is not like the Other, or is He?

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Which man am I describing? He was a hero in a controversial war. Originally perceived as conservative, he became more and more open to progressive ideas. Conservatives became wary. Ultimately, not only were many of them not supportive of his presidential bid, they even worked against him after it was clear he was the choice of most Republicans. Which man am I describing, Teddy Roosevelt or John McCain? Both—this was Roosevelt in 1912 and McCain in 2008.
Roosevelt was widely beloved during his day and for reasons that went beyond just politics. He had exciting hobbies like boxing and judo—both of which he personally indulged in as President. Imagine George W. Bush trading punches with professional boxers and military personnel in the White House. Imagine Jimmy Carter demonstrating his judo abilities to a European ambassador by throwing the man to the ground during a fancy picnic on the White House lawn. Roosevelt was a politician who actually authored his own books (rather than hired ghost writers).
But we don’t elect Presidents because we find them entertaining (though maybe that helped Reagan a little); it’s their policies that make a difference with voters. One of the traits that many people liked about Roosevelt—a desire to throw U.S. military weight around—is a good deal more controversial today. When it came to domestic policies, some of the progressive ideas that he embraced, like inspecting meat for contaminants, would strike even many staunch conservatives of today as perfectly reasonable and good. However, his desire for conservation and the federal income tax might hurt his poll numbers with some of today’s Americans.
Overall, Roosevelt was well-liked, but conservative Republicans lost faith in him; they felt like he changed too much as a politician. They worried that he would continue down the progressive road and end up who knew where. And they thought he had become too enamored with favorable big city press.
Could the same be said of John McCain? He had better hope not because Roosevelt lost in 1912. McCain has been trying to make the argument that he is conservative enough to please conservatives, but his appeal is broader than that. The danger for him is that many see him as being too far to the center to truly represent the right. George W. Bush is quite low in the polls now, but in 2004, he had a little something for everyone in the Republican Party, the social conservatives, the fiscal conservatives, the party establishment (translation: career Republicans who live the most meaningful parts of their lives inside the Washington Beltway), and the military hawks. The socials liked his consistent pro life stance; the fiscals didn’t like his big spending proposals, but the tax cuts were a hit; the establishment forces showed their loyalty to the son of one of their own, and of course there was plenty for the hawks to love. The only groups in that mix that McCain has truly resonated with are the party establishment types and the military hawks.
Republicans who genuinely like McCain believe that their hard-to-please brothers and sisters on the right will fall into line. Maybe McCain might not be perfect, they’ll reason, but he’s better than Obama or Clinton. Maybe that strategy—that “Vote for our guy, he’s nice and moderate, and he’s not the Democrat”—will work. It certainly has been a popular Republican approach in several elections. Let’s see, they tried this with Tom Dewey in 1948, George Bush in 1992, and Bob Dole in 1996. Hey, wait a minute, all those guys lost.