McCain and Obama on History

As a historian I like to know the views of each presidential candidate on American history, which can provide valuable insight into their real thinking. 

For instance, what is their stance on the Constitution?  Do they believe in applying original intent or do they believe it is a living document? 

Another valuable piece of information is who they regard as their favorite president, although this can sometimes be misleading.  But if one chooses Thomas Jefferson or Ronald Reagan you know they believe in smaller government and low taxes, generally speaking.  If they pick someone like FDR, well that tells you quite a bit about their ideas on government’s role in your life.

Both candidates were recently asked by Newsweek about their favorite presidents.

McCain answered, “On the obvious plus side, Lincoln, TR and Reagan are people who are in many respects my role models.”

When asked who he does not want to be like, McCain stated:  “One I was thinking about very recently because of this anti-free-trade, protectionism sentiment that understandably is being bred by our severe economic problems is Herbert Hoover.  In 1930, he signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and there were other actions that the administration and Congress took that sent us from a recession into a deep depression.  And my study of history is that Herbert Hoover was at least acquiescent, if not very active, in taking all the wrong steps, which again not only didn’t help the situation but exacerbated conditions which led to the most severe depression in the history of this nation.”

This is a constant theme with McCain.  He continually thunders against the dangers of protectionism, yet all three of his role models, including Reagan to some degree, were protectionists. 

But it is really Teddy Roosevelt that McCain admires most, as a recent interview in the New York Times indicates.  During the interview he failed to mention any conservative stalwarts, like Reagan or even Barry Goldwater, as role models.  “I count myself as a conservative Republican, yet I view it to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold.”  But TR was no traditional conservative.

In the same interview, McCain also laid out his basic philosophy of government.  “I believe less governance is the best governance, and that government should not do what the free enterprise and private enterprise and individual entrepreneurship and the states can do, but I also believe there is a role for government.  Government should take care of those in America who can not take care of themselves.”  Save for the last section, this sounds more Jeffersonian than Rooseveltian. 

TR believed much different, however, and can not be considered a Jeffersonian conservative.  “I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands,” he once said.  This statement speaks for itself.

Most of TR’s biographers get so caught up in his outgoing personality and charisma, like the mainstream media does with Obama, that they fail to see, or refuse to see, many faults.  A book by Jim Powell, of the Cato Institute, Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy, describes the consequences of TR’s presidency and what he really stood for.

The United States, TR believed, should engage in “the proper policing of the world.”  McCain would obviously concur with that sentiment, as he has stated on more than one occasion that “there will be other wars.”  It’s quite obvious that he is more hawkish than President Bush.

TR also greatly increased the power and influence of the presidency.  He issued 1,007 executive orders during his administration, the most ever until the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and FDR.  He believed that Congress should obey the president in all matters. 

But Teddy’s view of the Constitution is downright scary.  The conservative interpretation of the Constitution is that, in addition to being a compact among the states, it is a check on executive power; that the federal government can not act unless specifically authorized to do so.  TR rejected this notion and favored the opposite.  He wrote in his autobiography that “it was not only his [the president’s] right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.”  That’s a recipe for tyranny.

“Roosevelt failed to recognize the dangers of political power and war,” writes Powell.  He “recklessly intervened in the lives of Americans and in the affairs of other nations, and we have seen the policy backfire.”

This is McCain’s role model?

As for the Constitution, McCain claims to believe in strict construction, the opposite of Roosevelt, and will appoint like-minded judges to the federal bench.  Yet some of the positions he has taken during his years in Congress, like his campaign finance reform bill, a blatant violation of the First Amendment, cause conservatives to wonder.  McCain once told Don Imus that he would rather have a clean government than one where First Amendment rights are respected!

And remember McCain also supported the bill giving the president a line-item veto, which might be a good idea but where I went to school we learned there is a method for amending the Constitution and Congress cannot do it alone.  The Supreme Court wisely struck down the law.  Only a properly enacted amendment can change the Constitution.

By contrast, Obama’s answers to Newsweek were not nearly as in depth as McCain’s, demonstrating that he probably does not possess a vast knowledge of American history.  “When I think about presidents, I start with Lincoln, and not just because I’m from Illinois.  I think he embodies those qualities that are the very best in America:  upward mobility, an embrace of the future and an ability to stand fast on principle while acknowledging the other side of the debate.”  Upward mobility?  But how can Americans achieve upward mobility when Obama’s tax program, if enacted, will crush anyone who ascends up society’s ladder?  The higher you climb under a President Obama, the harder the government will come down on you!

On bad presidents, Obama stated:  “You know, I have to admit that I don’t spend a lot of time reading about failed presidents.  There is a long list of presidents who did not rise to the times – Hoover, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson.  Many of them are people who did not see, for example, the fault lines of slavery, or the dangers of depression.”

But one must wonder if Obama sees the dangers of depression today, for his policies would commit many of the same mistakes as President Herbert Hoover.  Most history classes that cover the Great Depression claim, erroneously, that Hoover was a true laissez faire capitalist who repeatedly stated that economic storms, like natural ones, should be allowed to blow themselves out.  But this is a complete lie.  Hoover greatly increased government spending to fight the Depression.  His major tax increases, moving the top rate to over 60 percent, had a tremendously negative effect on the economy.  Hoover’s intervention was so large that during the 1932 campaign FDR criticized him and promised to balance the federal budget!

Obama has written much more extensively than McCain on issues of history.  In his book The Audacity of Hope he has an entire chapter on the Constitution, which gives us a lot of insight into his thinking on the supreme law of the land.  Boasting in the book, as he has on the campaign trail, that he was once a “professor” of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, Obama, who incidentally never held the title of professor, takes a typical left wing position, with the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.  “Professor” Obama wrote that while he was “not unsympathetic to Justice Scalia’s position” of strict construction, it was his belief that the Constitution “is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world.”  It’s a rationale for which he spends several pages attempting to defend, unsuccessfully in my opinion.

Why, then, would our Founders bother to write the Constitution down on paper for all to see if it could be changed at the whim of a federal judge or the Supreme Court?  Remember the British constitution was not written down, therefore the King could interpret it as he pleased.  Our Founders were not about to repeat the same mistake.  As Joseph Sobran is fond of saying, the Constitution “is written on paper, not rubber.”

But “Professor” Obama claims this is the way its always been done, that even the Founders disagreed passionately on what they had just written, even before “the ink on the constitutional parchment was dry.”  This is partly true but when you understand the history of the period, and the motivations behind many of those involved, you quickly understand why. 

Many Federalists, like Alexander Hamilton, were nationalists who wanted a strong, central government.  They were not happy with the final product in Philadelphia.  In fact Hamilton had argued for a lifetime appointment for the president, the right of the president to appoint all state governors, and for the national government to have a veto over all state actions it did not agree with.  He and his ilk sought to change the Constitution through various means, including judicial interpretations.  It was the Republicans who stood up to him and finally succeeded in their goal, as Mr. Jefferson said, to “sink Federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection for it.”  And as a result, Jefferson and Madison saved the Revolution.

Studying “Professor” Obama’s grasp of American history, one quickly concludes that he possesses a warped, leftwing view of it.  He incorrectly claims that Jefferson, the great libertarian and foe of governmental power, “helped consolidate the power of the national government even as he claimed to deplore and reject such power.”  How Mr. Jefferson was responsible for this Obama does not bother to say.  He simply takes a shot at a great president who did not believe government was the best solution to our problems, as Senator Obama does.

But as bad as Obama might be with respect to a true understanding of history, McCain can be just as erroneous.  Both men lack true understanding of the nature of our Founding, a continuous mistake that has crippled our republic to the point of destruction.  One problem we face is that we have too many lawyers and not enough statesmen who truly understand our history, our heritage, where we came from, and how we got where we are.  Likewise, many of our people have also forgotten these important lessons.  And now our once great republic is in a state of decline.  Either we return to our proud history of liberty and capitalism, or march into the darkness of socialism and imperialism.


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