Jonathan Zimmerman: McCain has a new hero: Teddy, make way for Joe

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Zimmerman teaches history at NYU.]

Here's a simple way to understand the Republican descent: The party of Teddy the Rough Rider has become the party of Joe the Plumber.

Teddy the Rough Rider was Theodore Roosevelt, the GOP president who championed a strong central government and - surprise! - taxes on the rich. For many years, John McCain has identified Roosevelt as his political hero and role model.

But McCain made no mention of Roosevelt during his final debate last week with Barack Obama. Instead, he focused on Joe Wurzelbacher, the Ohio plumber who had confronted Obama during a campaign stop earlier this month.

You probably know the story. Wurzelbacher said he was looking to buy his own business, and he wondered whether his taxes would go up under Obama's economic plan. In response, Obama acknowledged that some people would see a tax hike. "When you spread the wealth around," Obama told Joe, "it's good for everybody."

In a subsequent interview, Wurzelbacher described this notion as "socialist." McCain himself didn't use that term during the debate, but he made it clear, in eight separate allusions to "Joe the Plumber," that his sympathies were with Wurzelbacher.

"We're going to take Joe's money, give it to Sen. Obama, and let him spread the wealth around," McCain complained. "I want Joe the Plumber to spread his wealth around."

Let's leave aside the question of whether Wurzelbacher - who owes more than $1,000 in back taxes - would actually pay more under Obama's plan. (He probably wouldn't.) The larger point here is that the Republicans have a new hero, and he's not Teddy Roosevelt.

There's a good reason for that. Roosevelt understood that his signature federal reforms - the Food and Drug Act, the Meat Inspection Act, and so on - created new costs. And he thought wealthy Americans should pick up a bigger portion of the bill.

"The man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the state, because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government," Roosevelt declared in 1907. "Not only should he recognize this obligation in the way he leads his daily life and in the way he earns and spends his money, but it should also be recognized by the way in which he pays for the protection the state gives him."

That's why Roosevelt supported a graduated inheritance tax as well as the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed the federal government to collect personal income taxes.

But let's be clear: Roosevelt was no socialist. Indeed, progressive taxation was often put forth as an alternative to socialism. In a time of growing economic inequality and labor unrest, supporters said, only a tax on the rich would stave off revolution.

And John McCain wasn't a socialist, either, when he rejected tax cuts for the wealthy back in 2000. "I don't think Bill Gates needs a tax cut. I think you and your parents do," McCain said during his battle with George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination.

Mocking Bush's calls for across-the-board tax relief, McCain made it clear just who would be relieved: the rich. "We give the millionaire a $2,000 refund," McCain explained. "Gov. Bush gives him $50,000."

Fast-forward to this year's campaign, and we find a new McCain. Rather than rejecting Bush's tax cuts, as Roosevelt would, McCain wants to make them permanent. Even more, McCain and his backers now deride anyone who disagrees with them as a "tax-and-spend liberal" - or even a socialist.

At a rally earlier this month in Wisconsin, one McCain supporter condemned Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as "hooligans." He went on to grumble that "socialists are taking over our country." McCain nodded appreciatively, and he later said the speaker was "right."

He wasn't, though. Teddy the Rough Rider knew that a century ago, when he insisted that well-to-do Americans should pay more than the rest of us. And McCain knew it, too, until he rode roughshod over Roosevelt's memory.

Demand progressive taxation in 1907, and you get your face carved onto Mount Rushmore. Advocate the same thing in 2008, and you're an enemy of hardworking plumbers. Go figure.

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