May 13, 2005


You wouldn't think that after all this time there'd be anything new to say about Theodore Roosevelt, but last year a reporter for the Albany Times Union named Paul Grondahl published a nifty little biography called I Rose Like A Rocket with an angle I hadn't seen before.

This was the importance to Roosevelt's career of his political education in -- wait for it -- Albany, first as an Assemblyman for three years in his early 20s and later as Governor after returning from Cuba. Grondahl doesn't cover just those five years, and the book recycles some familiar material about Roosevelt's time in the Dakota territory and in Washington. He does a pretty good job, though, of showing the importance of Roosevelt's experience as a professional politician to his development as a statesman. A flavor of the book can be picked up in this chat transcript from last July.

Roosevelt was a polymath, a rare type even in his time, who earned his living at various times by selling cattle, books and articles on an astonishing variety of subjects. But for most of his adult life before 1901 he was a professional politician, who ran for office when he thought there was one he could win, sought appointments to government jobs when he didn't, and learned a lot of his lessons on what did and did not work in government and politics the hard way. Long ago some focus group reacted badly to the word "politician" and ever since candidates have appealed to voters on the grounds that they were different; they were not professional politicians, but people from some other field come to clean up politics with the allegedly unique wisdom they absorbed in their former life. It would be entertaining to listen to Roosevelt's reaction to appeals for support from such modern-day unprofessional unpoliticians as Wesley Clark (Army), John Edwards (personal injury law), and Bill Frist (heart surgery). Reading Grondahl's book makes one wonder if any of these guys could have learned as much about making government work as Roosevelt did in three years as a junior assemblyman in the New York state legislature.

Roosevelt, the only President born in New York City, also left a mark as a Police Commissioner there in the 1890s. I particularly enjoyed Grondahl's retelling of a familiar story about a debate between Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis on whether their favorite police commissioner could become President. When they took their argument to Roosevelt he roared at Riis for even suggesting the idea, and then said

"Never, never, you must never either of you remind a man at work on a political job that he may become President. It almost always gives up the very traits that are making him a possibility. I, for instance, I am going to do great things here, hard things that require all the courage, ability, work that I am capable of...But if I get to thinking of what it might lead to...I must be wanting to be President. Every young man does [Roosevelt was 37 at the time]. But I won't let myself think of it; I must not, because if I do, I will begin to work for it, I'll be careful, calculating, cautious in word and act, and so--I'll beat myself. See?"

It's easy enough to see the truth of this coming from Roosevelt. I wonder how much truth it holds for some of our modern Presidential aspirants. Suppose that, say, John Kerry or Bill Frist did decide not to listen so carefully to the advice of their campaign consultants and made their appeals to organized interest groups in a less calculated way. Suppose they were less cautious about offending any group whose support they might win. Would we be able to tell?

My other book this week is Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray's congressional classic Showdown at Gucci Gulch, which tells the story of the 1986 Tax Reform Act's long march from conception to enactment. It was always an absorbing read, but it has a melancholy edge to it now, ten Congresses and almost twenty years after President Reagan signed the TRA into law.

Politicians' zeal to help special interests and collect campaign cash didn't just develop yesterday. For many years prior to the TRA the tax code had been the vehicle not only for social engineering but for rent-seeking and vote buying, sometimes decorously concealed and sometimes not. Washington wisdom, supported by most interest group representatives, was that this was the way it had always been and always would be. Political wisdom, somewhat sketchily supported by opinion polling, was that the public was discontented with a tax system that allowed rich people and large companies to get away from paying their fair share by taking advantage of shelters for passive losses and the myriad other tax breaks Congress had put into the code over the years.

Eventually, led by some very unlikely champions in the Reagan administration and the Congress, especially the Senate, tax reform survived all the furious assaults on it by lobbyists and their champions on the Hill. The 1986 TRA slashed individual income tax rates, ended dozens of shelters, took millions of low-income earners off the tax rolls and raised corporate taxes substantially. It was a signature and fully bipartisan accomplishment for the Reagan administration that probably could not have been enacted under any other modern President. And it started to decay almost immediately.

What we know now that Birnbaum and Murray could not have was that President Reagan's fading energy and his preoccupation with the Iran-Contra scandal would combine with the Republicans' loss of the Senate in the 1986 elections to weaken an essential element in the success of any legislation: entrenched opposition to the idea of undoing it. Beginning in 1987 the newly Democratic Congress began making new proposals to use the tax code to promote various causes. With Reagan's departure from the White House in 1989 the current Dark Age of the American Presidency began, an age characterized by mediocrity, fecklessness, self-absorption and incidentally a thoroughgoing lack of interest in keeping a simplified tax code that required similar taxes from people with similar incomes. By 2000 both major-party Presidential candidates were running on tax programs that promised a plethora of new tax breaks, and Congress has added more in every year since.

Bad luck accounts for some of this. Faulty political calculation does as well; Americans may have been fed up with the pre-TRA code, but that didn't mean they'd be willing to reward politicians committed to simplifying it. What Americans want most is lower taxes, not simpler ones, and if their own taxes are lower they aren't so concerned about whether everyone else's are fair. As a vote winner, tax reform never paid off. And of course while the tax reform coalition was weakening after the 1986 elections the lobbyists who never wanted reform in the first place weren't going anywhere.

Still, there is something inspiring in the story of a diverse group of people striving jointly, and succeeding for a while, to establish policy over a vast area of government activity that aimed at fairness and rules of the road that everyone could understand. Showdown is also a timely reminder of how much Congress has changed. Birnbaum and Murray include an anecdote about the prior tax bill, in 1984, when Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole tried to cut the federal deficit by reducing the size of some vast tax breaks the real estate industry had been given in 1981. This industry, then as now was very well represented on Capitol Hill; its lobbyists fought furiously against Dole's plan, and won. This was the reaction they got from Dole:

"They have been camping on our doorstep. They have been in the gallery. They have been in the elevators...I know the precise office this storm has been created by. There will be another day."

The 1986 tax reform eliminated tens of billions of dollars of real estate shelters; no industry was treated more harshly. You can imagine a few people in Washington today, a couple of them in Congress, who would signal a powerful organized interest that it was now in the crosshairs: if the interest only supported politicians of the other party, for instance, or if it was threatening to complicate some campaign position of the President's. But for blocking action on a policy issue unrelated to an upcoming campaign? That would never happen today.

Posted by at May 13, 2005 10:39 PM | TrackBack (4)

Suppose they were less cautious about offending any group whose support they might win. Would we be able to tell?

sure. Kerry would sound like Dean, and Frist would sound like Buchanan.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 14, 2005 07:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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