In the course of a column on Tea Party candidate Ted Cruz’s victory in Texas for the Republican senate nomination, George Will recounts a time one hundred years ago this Sunday when Republicans purposefully lost an election to preserve the Constitution. I did not know these things about Teddy Roosevelt:
After leaving the presidency in 1909, TR went haywire. He had always chafed under constitutional restraints, but he had remained a Hamiltonian, construing the Constitution expansively but respectfully. By 1912, however, he had become what the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, was — an anti-Madisonian. Both thought the Constitution, the enumeration and separation of powers, intolerably crippled government.
Espousing unconstrained majoritarianism, TR disdained James Madison’s belief that the ultimate danger is wherever ultimate power resides, which in a democracy is with the majority. He endorsed the recall of state judicial decisions and by September 1912 favored the power to recall all public officials, including the president.
TR’s anti-constitutional excesses moved two political heroes to subordinate personal affection to the public interest. New York Sen. Elihu Root had served TR as secretary of war and secretary of state, and he was Roosevelt’s first choice to succeed him in 1908. Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge had long been one of TR’s closest friends. Both sided with Taft.
As the Hudson Institute’s William Schambra says (in “The Saviors of the Constitution,” National Affairs, Winter 2012, and elsewhere), by their “lonely, principled” stand, Root and Lodge, along with Taft, “denied TR the powerful electoral machinery of the Republican Party, which would almost surely have elected him, and then been turned to securing sweeping alterations” of the Constitution.
Wilson won with 41.8 percent of the vote (to TR’s 27.4 percent). Taft won 23.2 percent, carrying only Vermont and Utah, but achieved something far grander than a second term: the preservation of the GOP as an intellectual counterbalance to the Democrats’ thorough embrace of progressivism and the “living” — actually, disappearing — Constitution.