A little history lesson…and the case for Bush

Silver Chips Online, MD
Oct 31, 2004

A little history lesson…and the case for Bush

by Armin Rosen, Page Editor

The use of historical precedent often times ignores the nuances of the
event that is being used as an example. Take for instance the popular
comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. The two are alike in that they are wars
in which the United States fought; yet the nature of the conflicts
could not be less similar.

But, the presidential election of 1896 and the election of 2004 have a
number of major parallels.

In 1896, the United States was struggling to define its place in the
world. The slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by the soldiers of the
Ottoman Empire sparked debate over America’s humanitarian
responsibilities. And whereas expansionism had been an unquestioned
aspect of American foreign policy in the early nineteenth century, the
prospect of expansion in Cuba through intervention in the Cuban civil
war (which was estimated to have killed almost a quarter of the
island’s population) became a passionate campaign issue, as
expansionists and anti-expansionists argued over the morality of an
imperialistic foreign policy. And in 1896, America was occupying a
foreign country rich in resources. That country was Hawaii.

In 1896, the economy was coming off a crippling recession. The markets
were down, unemployment soared, and the economic debate was, as it is
today, dominated by taxation. The previous year, the Supreme Court had
ruled the progressive tax an unconstitutional assault on property
rights; the incumbent party (the Democrats in this case) was
subsequently criticized for its failure to tax high earners and
regulate big business.

And in 1896, a single controversial issue irreconcilably divided the
country: the mineral standard for American currency after the
contraction in the gold supply. William Jennings Bryant, the Democratic
nominee, supported a silver standard for the dollar; to the Republican
supporters of William McKinley, this was tantamount to theft, as the
inflation of the dollar (silver was in vast supply in those days) would
threaten the intricate system of borrowing and lending that supported
the economy of the late nineteenth century.

It is worth noting that this issue faded from the public conscience
soon after Bryan’s defeat. Historians now believe that the currency
issue was simply a flashpoint for the polarity of the times; indeed,
things became so bad that newspapers wrote of a “new sectionalism,”
creating a parallel between the political bitterness of the 1890s and
that of the old “sectionalism” that eventually led to civil war.

Yet the national crisis of conscience seemed more and more absurd with
every successive year of the McKinley administration. What did America
do right? We resisted the urge to elect a populist to the highest
office in the world.

Some more history

Today, similar to 108 years ago, the United States has been forced to
choose between a man of dubious vision and a man of ignominious
populism. In 1896, and again in 1890, William Jennings Bryan, with his
opposition to imperialism, flat income taxation and central banking,
fell into the latter category. Now, in 2004, Kerry has campaigned on
similar topics of broad appeal to the working class, casting his
opponent as an unabashed panderer to the interests of oil companies,
drug companies, defense contractors and big business in general.

During his first term (his second was cut short by an assassins bullet
in 1901), McKinley used American troops to end humanitarian disasters
in Spanish-controlled Spain and British-controlled China and
successfully established independent China as a free trade zone. These
actions stabilized the world, helped the U.S. economy, expanded the
United State’s influence in world affairs and severely limited the
influence of Europe’s two greatest imperial powers.

Today, India holds many of the same economic opportunities that China
had 108 years ago; according to Congressional Quarterly Researcher,
India will export $50 billion in technology by 2008 and currently has a
middle class roughly equal in population to that of the entire United
States. Kerry’s protectionist policy on outsourcing certainly satisfies
the minority of workers in the tech service sector that could
potentially have their jobs outsourced but will, in the long run,
threaten our ties to a country that is on the way to becoming an
invaluable economic partner of the United States.

Indeed the outsourcing debate is a microcosm of almost all populist
economics. Populists claim that anything that helps big business harms
the worker, but the health of big businesses benefits the working-class
employees of those businesses through wages, benefits and pensions,
which are often stock options in the company they work for.

Expansion into Puerto Rico and Hawaii were issues every bit as
polarizing as our present military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan;
however the voters realized that that the assertion of American power
and the strength and resolve in areas of international affairs were two
of the greatest assets a president could bring to the job.

Kerry, like Bryan 108 years ago, brings neither. Indeed, in his book A
Call to Service, Kerry writes, “In contrast to the dangerous mix of
isolationism and unilateralist that characterizes the Republicans, [I
support] speaking from a position of strength on international
issues-the multilateral cooperative tradition of democratic
internationalism forged in the course of two world wars and the cold
war.” Kerry views foreign policy in the context of multilateralism and
internationalism; the populists of the 1890s viewed it through

By 1900, isolationism seemed an absurdity after America’s successful
military and diplomatic campaigns in Cuba, China, Nicaragua (McKinley
used the threat of military action to protect American interests
there), Hawaii, Guam (another target of expansionism) and to a certain
extent the Philippines (which were ceded to the United States by Spain
after the war in Cuba) tipped the balance of power in the early
twentieth century. “Democratic internationalism” is by no means absurd.
But to base an entire foreign policy on “democratic internationalism”
when so many recent successes in American foreign policy, including
economic sanctions against Cuba, the unilateral demand for negotiations
to end the Bosnian civil war in 1995, the invasion of Panama in 1989
and our ongoing support for the State of Israel, have been
fundamentally unilateralist, would be simply myopic. And it is simply
erroneous to assume that America can “speak from a position of
strength” while ceding at least some of its diplomatic power to other

Indeed, Kerry believes in internationalism so adamantly that The
Washington Post quoted him as saying in 1994, in respect to the
possibility of deploying U.S. troops to Bosnia that, “If you mean
(American soldiers) dying in the course of the United Nations effort,
yes, it is worth that. If you mean dying American troops unilaterally
going in with some false presumption that we can affect the outcome,
the answer is unequivocally no.”

There is a word for scaring the working class with stories of abusive
big business (which, ironically, pays the salaries of most members of
the working class) and for pursuing a foreign policy downplaying
America’s ability to assert its self: populism. Bush, like McKinley 108
years ago, promises us a visionary plan for the revival of our economy
and peace overseas. Recently the columnist David Ignatius compared the
Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein to the revolutionary
sparks that led nineteenth century Europe towards democratic and social
reform. Today, there are four times more democracies in the Middle East
than there were four years ago, as Bahrain, Israel, Afghanistan and
Iraq provide hope that democratic ideals can thrive in the Middle East.
Change in the Middle East is well under way, thanks to the
administration of George W. Bush.

Bush is also in the process of moving our country further towards an
“ownership society” where low taxation and personal savings can
eventually replace government handouts. Kerry has criticized Bush for
recommending a plan for privatizing Social Security that would cost
taxpayers over $2 trillion during the transition of Social Security
from government to private control. But at least Bush has presented a
plan that will provide for the permanent solvency of Social Security by
eliminating the program’s dependency on taxpayer dollars. This is the
kind of thinking that does not permeate with the majority of America,
which thinks that government control is the only guarantee of the
survival of Social Security. But populism will not prevent the run on
Social Security that may doom the system during the next several
decades. Again, in the realm of reality, populism fails.

In conclusion…

Previously, I referred to Bush’s vision for the world as “dubious.”
Bush’s vision is limited by his shortcomings as an individual and as a
leader, and his hesitance to admit and rectify past mistakes should
worry Democrats and Republicans alike.

But consider this: Lewis L. Gould, a history professor at the
University of Texas, wrote that “McKinley was a President who acted
decisively in going to war with Spain, asserted great presidential
authority over his cabinet and generals and understood the link between
foreign markets and national prosperity.” If history teaches us
anything, it is that strong, resolute leadership and a worldview that
might reject certain popular opinions in lieu of strategic long-term
goals trumps any defects in personality. That is why it is imperative
that America elect George W. Bush on November 2nd: because we, as a
nation that is now mired in a crisis of conscience, cannot afford to
embrace the popular route while disregarding the necessary one.