Today’s Chaos, Ethics And Alternate History Note: Teddy’s Fateful Decision

On this day in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was nominated to run for  Presidency by the newly formed Progressive Party, quickly dubbed “the Bull Moose Party” after Teddy said he felt like Bull Moose. Roosevelt’s platform called for the direct election of U.S. Senators, woman suffrage, and many social reforms based on fair business competition and increased welfare for the poor. As anyone could have told Roosevelt and many tried, this move was based on vanity and anger, and almost certainly ensured that Woodrow Wilson would end up President after Republicans split their votes between Roosevelt and President Taft. Wilson was indeed elected, and the result for the country was disastrous. A proud racist, Wilson endorsed Jim Crow and eliminated what had been the gradual racial liberalization of government agencies. He took the U.S. into World War I, something a re-elected President Taft would not have done (but, alas, Teddy would have, since he liked wars), helping to spread the Spanish flu world -wide. Wilson allowed the treaty ending he  war to be excessively punitive to Germany, planting the seeds of World War II, the Holocaust, and the rise of the Soviet Union.

Roosevelt couldn’t have predicted any of this, of course, except for Wilson’s election. Still, it was his irrational decision that set the marbles on the infinite pool table in motion.Roosevelt had impulsively announced that he would not run for re-election in 1908 (he had almost served two full terms, but he he had only been elected to one), and almost immediately regretted it. He expected his hand-picked successor and best friend, William Howard Taft, to follow his policies, and when he didn’t, Roosevelt turned on him with a vengeance.

Imagine what the alternate U.S. history might have been if we had been spared two terms of Woodrow Wilson, and there is no doubt that we would have been spared, had not Teddy Roosevelt been nominated for President 108 years ago.

14 thoughts on “Today’s Chaos, Ethics And Alternate History Note: Teddy’s Fateful Decision

  1. This is why we need ranked choice voting, and this is why the two major political parties quietly bury the concept. We need to refuse to elect any legislators who don’t promise to push for ranked choice voting. It’s not going to solve all the problems with politics, but it’ll make it easier to solve most of them by weakening the partisan false dichotomy.

    • Agreed. Simultaneous run-off is the way to go. You rank the candidates you would vote for (and you need not include all candidates) and after voting if no single candidate has a majority the least popular candidate is struck from the ballot and anyone who had them as their top pick defaults to their second pick. Repeat until a candidate has a majority. No more third party spoiler effect.

  2. Australia uses preferential voting, effectively simultaneous run-off.
    We’ve had plenty of variations which I consider to be problematic however. For our Federal Senate elections – three Senators elected from each State, regardless of State size or population – you can have thirty names on the list, and there have been times you had to number them ALL! Alternatively, we flirted with a Group Voting Ticket where parties negotiated vote sharing before the election. You can search for it yourself if interested, but on one occasion it led to a bloke being elected with 0.51% of the vote. Less than ideal perhaps?

    Overall, I believe preferential voting where you can number UP TO, say, five candidates is ideal. If you can’t get to someone who is widely acceptable within five tries you’re too weird anyway!

    We also have compulsory voting for everyone over eighteen as well.

    Also, all voting is managed by the Australian Electoral Commission and votes scrutinised by representatives of all (?) the parties involved and are handled in a similar manner to a police chain of evidence situation. The idea of finding boxes of votes in someones car boot a couple of weeks after the election, as has happened in the US as I recall, is laughable and would result in criminal charges and a rerun of the election in that seat.

  3. I was 12 at the time, but did Ross Perot pull off the same trick in 1992, giving us Bill Clinton? Or is it less certain that he made the difference?

    • It’s less certain, but I think Perot won it for Clinton. It was, however, a less distinguished field. Until he dropped out, and proved he was a little nuts, Perot looked like he had a chance.

      • Wasn’t that also the election where Buchanan refused to endorse Bush — I always thought that played a significant role in getting Clinton into office.

        • When Presidents have primary challenges, that is when they tend to lose. Carter had Kennedy, Ford had Reagan, Bush had Buchanan. The last President to lose reelection without a primary challenger was Hoover. If presidents aren’t shot (Kennedy), refuse to run (Johnson), or resign (Nixon) they serve two terms.

          One more reason I wouldn’t bet against Trump.

  4. Perhaps as much or more consequential as Teddy’s choice was the 1860 election. The Southern firebrands essentially sabotaged the Democratic convention, where at the time you needed a 2/3 vote to be nominated. As a result, the party fractured with two conventions and two nominees and paved the way for Lincoln and secession. One could make a case that if Stephen Douglas had been the sole nominee of the Democratic party, he would’ve had a decent chance of winning.

    And, at least one book I can recall reading about the subject pretty much states that this was deliberate by the secessionists. That they were trying to force the issue and ensure that the South would secede, anticipating that otherwise slavery was ultimately doomed (which was probably true).

    I doubt they expected the results they ultimately achieved — I think many in the South did not realize how strongly the very idea of the Union had taken hold in much of the country by then.

  5. I’m late to the table, but I love playing “what if?” So, here’s my take on the alternative future where Teddy Roosevelt did not run in 1912. He was a year back from Europe and disgusted that Taft was approaching the task of governing completely different than he had. To Roosevelt, a president was a trustee of the people’s power, to use it for them as best he saw fit. Taft saw the president as more a chief magistrate, who should be careful not to exceed his enumerated powers – when not hitting the links. Roosevelt swore he’d topple Taft, if not as the Republican nominee, then as the nominee of his own party. However, a few of his friends who could talk to him frankly told him, “Ted, there are times you act like you’re about six years old, but this is the six-year-oldiest. You can run, but all it will do is split the Republican vote and hand the White House to that dead-eyed, ivory-tower, political neophyte from Princeton. Is that what you want? This country isn’t yours to use for your own vendetta or destroy when you don’t get your way.”

    Angry, but seeing the point, Teddy dropped out of public life and retired to Sagamore House in Oyster Bay to write and figure out what was next for him at 54. Although he took no part in the 1912 election, his neutrality was enough to guarantee Taft a second term and send Woodrow Wilson back into academia. Vice President James Sherman died shortly before the election. As a gesture to his former friend, who he still respected, Taft replaced him with political sage and longtime Republican public servant Elihu Root. Roosevelt’s account of his many meetings with the rulers of Europe during his time there, “The Gilded Path,” was published in 2013, and his proposal for a stronger international community and a possible international court, “A Firmer Foundation,: was published the next year…a month before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand touched off a war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and the Kaiser foolishly delivered “the German Blank Check.”

    Wisely, Taft and Root avoided getting involved as the war spread to Belgium and France, then the UK and Russia kept their treaty obligations while Italy broke theirs. They looked with disgust on the destruction of Belgium, horror on the “race to the sea,” and half-relief, half disbelief as the “Taxicab Army” stopped the Germans just shy of Paris. Meantime they struggled to keep order in the Western Hemisphere, with much diplomacy and demonstration, but only intervening as a last resort, which meant only in Mexico, to back General Huerta, who finally pacified the country after years of revolution and attempted to lead it into democracy, a step at a time. Haiti and the Dominican Republic were left to their own devices, since they were not considered essential.

    The war in Europe continued into 1916. The Battle of Verdun became an endless abbatoir of French, German, British, and other lives. The British Grand Fleet, although suffering greater losses, achieved a strategic victory as they turned back the German High Seas Fleet in the Battle of Jutland, making the Germans realize submarine warfare was their only hope to break the tight British blockade. The Easter Rising came…and failed, but the British committed a PR blunder of the first water by executing the leaders, turning Irish public opinion against them. The Austrians and Italians repeatedly threw back one another’s advances by the Isonzo. Russia started to fall apart, but had not yet revolted.

    Determined not to leave this mess to his successor, who might decide the US needed to get involved, Taft sent an urgent message to his estranged friend asking for a meeting. They met at Grey Towers, the home of Roosevelt’s political ally and rising GOP politician (who had been dismissed by Taft) Gifford Pinchot, who made the house available for the purpose. Taft offered Roosevelt an appointment as “special envoy to Europe” for the purpose of trying to end the war, since he had successfully mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese war in Portsmouth, NH. Surprisingly, Roosevelt accepted, hoping he might succeed where the Pope had failed, since he knew many of the sovereigns involved. After many messages, it was arranged for delegates to meet at the then-new Peace Palace in The Hague toward the end of July.

    Roosevelt had a tall order ahead of him. The French wanted Alsace and Lorraine back. The Belgians wanted their nation back plus reparations. The Italians wanted Fiume and disputed territory. Still with boundless energy, Roosevelt went back and forth between the various breakout sessions, exploiting his name and personal relationships. Finally a treaty was hammered out that gave the parties, if not all they wanted, enough to make everyone all right with the results. Germany would withdraw from Belgium, return disputed territories to France, and pay an indemnity to the Belgians for the destruction. Austria-Hungary and Italy would draw a new border, much the same as before. The Russians would be given certain territorial concessions in what had been Poland. On August 18, 2016, the treaty was signed, and the guns finally fell quiet. World War One ended more than two years before it did in our world, with a lot less impact on that generation. The flags of three empires that would have otherwise come down still flew, for Germany had not revolted, Austria-Hungary had not collapsed, and Russia was spared the stress that finally pushed it over the edge.

    Elihu Root campaigned to succeed Taft, and, in light of this victory, was guaranteed success that fall. A certain Austrian artist never achieved much, for he did not have as much discontent to play on. The lives of malcontents V.I. Ulyanov and Iosef Dzugashvili ended with the slam of a czarist prison door. Nicolas II, Karl I, Wilhelm II, and Victor Emmanuel III reigned on. There was no Prohibition. The battleship was king at sea a while longer. Teddy Roosevelt, awarded a second Nobel Peace Prize and multiple other awards including a golden statue of St. Francis of Assisi which adorned his study desk at Sagamore House, might well have thought he had made a perfect world, or close to it, by the time an embolism ended his life on January 6, 1919. How wrong he was. This just gave Europe a few more decades to chafe under the yoke of monarchy, before it was decided enough was enough…but that’s a story for another day.

      • Thanks, although I don’t think I’m on the level of Newt Gingrich, who wrote a very interesting Civil War trilogy.

          • Ahh, you missed out then. Gingrich was terrible as a presidential candidate, but he and Forstchen produced some very nice alternative history novels, well worth reading. He should’ve stuck to writing after that instead of politics.

            One thing I found fascinating about the Gettysburg trilogy is that it took a hard look at how the North would have responded to a defeat at Gettysburg. You typically hear the idea that a victory by Lee at Gettysburg would have automatically won the war for them, but absent the total destruction of Meade’s army would that have been inevitable?

            Lincoln, one has to admit, was one of the most determined bitter-ender that this country has ever produced. Washington suffered defeat after defeat but persevered to ultimate victory. Lincoln didn’t give up after Bull Run, or the Peninsular campaign, second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, etc. Why would he have thrown in the towel after Gettysburg? Lee would have had to force him to quit, I think, and I don’t know that Lee’s army — after the hell of Gettysburg — would have been strong enough to do that.

            The war was won in the West, and Grant was wrapping up Vicksburg even as Gettysburg was being fought. Forstchen and Gingrich postulate that Lincoln summons Grant east after the loss at Gettysburg and Grant — another man with the utmost determination — was, in their view, able to prevail..

            Can you tell that I enjoy alternate history novels? 🙂

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