You could never accuse Republicans of going "back to the future." In fact, there are many past leaders of their own party whom today's Republicans would never vote for, and would just as soon forget.
Let's start with Richard Nixon. Sure, he was a scoundrel who needlessly prolonged the war in Vietnam, but his legislative record would make any progressive proud. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Air Act. He pioneered the use of Section 8 federal grants for low-income housing. At the urging of aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later senator from New York, Nixon was the first president to discuss taking action to counter the threat of "global warming." He also embraced the idea of a "guaranteed annual income" for all Americans.
And what about Ronald Reagan? His record is nowhere near as conservative as his rhetoric nor the portrait today's right-wingers paint of him. One year after being elected governor of California, he announced the largest tax increase proposed by any governor ever. I was there in 1972 when he signed into law the historic California Scenic and Wild Rivers Act. As president, Reagan signed 11 major tax hikes into law – including, in 1982, what was the largest peacetime tax increase in American history.
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But of all former party leaders Republicans rush to repudiate, Teddy Roosevelt tops the list. He was, for starters, our first, and still greatest, conservation president, whose legacy includes creation of four national monuments and five national parks, as well as expansion of Yosemite. But, above all else, Roosevelt will always be remembered as the man who took on the big corporations and their overpaid CEOs, whom he once referred to as "the criminal rich." Were he alive today, Teddy Roosevelt would not be vilifying the Occupy movement. He would be leading it.
It was this populist Teddy Roosevelt that President Obama brought back to life this week in a powerful speech in Osawatomie, Kan. – the same small town where Roosevelt himself appeared 101 years ago to warn of a growing conflict between "the men who possess more than they have earned, and the men who have earned more than they possess." Given that disparity in income, it was government's responsibility, Roosevelt declared, to step in and create a level playing field. Among other actions, he called for holding directors of corporations directly responsible for lawbreaking by firms they headed; banning use of corporate funds for political campaigns; passage of workmen's compensation insurance; child labor protection laws (which Newt Gingrich now wants to abolish); a progressive income tax on the wealthy; and a graduated inheritance tax. For this, Obama noted, "Roosevelt was called a radical, he was called a socialist, even a communist." Sound familiar?
Like Roosevelt, Obama also condemned economic inequality, the growing gap between the extremely wealthy and daily wage-earners, which he called "the defining issue of our time." Noting that income for the top 1 percent has soared 250 percent in recent years while average income for the 99 percent has actually declined, Obama said we've reached "a make or break moment for the middle class."
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In a speech that could have been written by any Occupy Wall Street protester, Obama observed that things have gotten so bad that the American dream can no longer be taken for granted. What's at stake now, he warned, is nothing less than "whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home and secure their retirement." If not, we're in deep trouble, he concluded, because America can only succeed "when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share and when everyone plays by the same rules."
Though speaking in the same town on the same subject, Obama still offered a stark contrast to Roosevelt. His language was much milder, and the solution he proposed was much more modest. Instead of a long list of bold new government initiatives, Obama called for only one: extension and expansion of the payroll tax cut, which congressional Republicans stubbornly oppose.
What would today's Republicans do about income inequality? Make it even worse. By demanding even deeper tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, while blocking any tax break for working-class Americans. Roosevelt would say they've got it backward. If Republicans won't listen to Barack Obama on this issue, maybe they should listen to one of their own.