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Henningsen: A Clear Choice

(Host) Both the candidates and the media have billed this Presidential election as a clear choice between two visions of the role of government in the lives of individual Americans. Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen looks back to a similar set of circumstances -one hundred years ago.

(Henningsen) In 1912 Americans were treated to a rare event: a four-way contest for the Presidency that spanned the entire political spectrum. Incumbent President William Howard Taft ran as what today we would call a moderate Republican; Democrat Woodrow Wilson occupied the center-right - Democrats were still the party of small government then. Former President Theodore Roosevelt had created a third, center-left, party, the Progressives; and on the far left were the Socialists, led by veteran labor agitator Eugene Debs.

Thiswas during the Progressive Era. Anti-trust legislation, regulatory agencies, workplace safety and child labor laws, environmental protection, and attention to things like food and drug safety rules all characterized the Progressive effort to protect average citizens from the negative consequences of the rise of industrialism.

Attention centered on Roosevelt and Wilson's debate over the role of government in American life. TR accepted big business as a fact of modern life and sought to regulate its behavior. Calling his plan the New Nationalism, Roosevelt favored a robust partnership between government and private enterprise that would use public regulatory commissions to monitor big business.

Wilson regarded new concentrations of wealth and power as fundamentally unfair and sought to break up business trusts to make the American economy a level playing field. Advocating what he termed the New Freedom, Wilson called for more active use of existing legislation like anti-trust laws, rather than more government bureaucracy, as the best way to protect the public interest.

Both Roosevelt and Wilson provided substantial detail about their competing plans and Americans went to the polls more fully informed about the issues than at any time since the election of 1860. Wilson won and ushered in the most intensive period of government reform before the New Deal, adopting, as it happened, TR's ideas to create new agencies like the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission.

Today's contest also presents a choice. If Obama wins, Affordable Health Care and the financial regulation embodied in the Dodd-Frank law will be firmly entrenched in American life. Romney promises to reduce government's role and let free enterprise restore American greatness.

But neither presents detailed explanations of their programs. Their specifically vague and vaguely specific statements, with their airy appeals to the legacy of Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, are reminiscent not of 1912, but of 1920, when Republican Warren Harding campaigned and won on the fuzzy promise of a Return to Normalcy.

A seasoned pol whose main qualification for office was that he looked presidential,Harding referred to his own oratory as bloviating. One observer described a Harding speech as an army of platitudes marching back and forth across the landscape in search of an idea.

While not quite that bad, today's candidates do us a disservice in their assumption that, contrary to 1912, we can't handle the details.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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