Martin Dyckman: There was a time when Republicans tried to tame the rich

Who said these words?

1. “The accumulation of those things which make for comfort and beauty in a home is out of the question…every penny added to the cost of food, of coal, of common articles of clothing means simply less food, less warmth, less covering.”

    a) Robert Reich

    b) Harry Reid

    c) Ida Tarbell

2. “When you have worked with them, when you have lived with them, you do not have to wonder how they feel, because you feel it yourself.”

a) Mitt Romney

b) Theodore Roosevelt

c) Barack Obama

3. “I have become more set than ever in my distrust of those men, whether business men or lawyers, judges, legislators, or executive officers, who seek to make of the Constitution a fetish for the prevention of the work of social reform.”

     a) Paul Krugman

     b) John Roberts

     c) Theodore Roosevelt

4. “…the blindness and greed of the so-called captains of industry…. the unconscious arrogance of conscious wealth and financial success.”

    a) William Howard Taft

    b) Elizabeth Warren

    c) Hillary Clinton

The answers are 1 c, 2 b, 3 c, 4 a, and the reference to the cost of coal was of course the giveaway clue that all these quotations are more than a century old.

They prove that it isn’t only in France where the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tarbell, the great muckraking journalist, was decrying the high tariffs of her day, which heaped misery on working people. She and her colleagues crusaded against the ruthless behavior of corporate America, whose mergers and mushrooming trusts were destroying jobs and concentrating ever more wealth in the hands of a few.

And more often than not, Republicans Roosevelt and Taft were with the crusaders. Although a staple of Democratic platforms, the progressive income tax was a Republican achievement.

But now, as then, income inequality is once again eroding the middle class, condemning millions more Americans to permanent poverty, shattering the faith in the future that has been, and must remain, the foundation of American democracy.

In state after state, the progressive income tax is being flattened and cut. Sales taxes have become the modern equivalent of the tariff.

The most cynical lie of modern times is that an equal tax is a “fair tax.”  The Wall Street wolf with income in the millions has bundles left over after paying a 7.5 percent sales tax on fancy cars, clothes, and food. Nobody but his accountant even notices the tax.

But for the family trying to subsist on minimum wage, that’s 7.5 percent less for transportation, clothing, heating and food–with nothing left over for education, savings or recreation.

And there are still politicians pretending that a national sales tax of 15, 20 or 25 percent would be a “fair tax.”

No current issue is more urgent than restoring hope and fair opportunity to the millions of Americans suffering from the fallout of the rapacity of the big banks and Wall Street.

President Obama recognizes this. To the extent that the Republicans seem to care, it’s to make the rich even richer.

The quotations above all come from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s newest history, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.”

It’s well-done, as we have come to expect of Goodwin’s research and writing, and a remarkably timely reminder of how social and economic progress was once a bipartisan aspiration.

Goodwin is exceptionally good at presenting the humanity of her historical figures.  Her history is living, not dry.

Her description of the reconciliation between Roosevelt and his protégé Taft, after the historic rupture that split their party in 1912, is particularly moving.

And so is the ultimate point she makes:

“There was a time, at the height of their careers, when Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft stood shoulder to shoulder as they charted a different role for the U.S. government that would fundamentally enlarge the bounds of economic opportunity and social justice.”

Martin Dyckman


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