It wasn’t so much a vote as a proclamation of ideology last Thursday when Republicans filibustered Obama’s nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The rebuff had nothing to do with the person, Richard Cordary, who even Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said appeared well qualified. Rather, it was part of the GOP campaign to hobble the agency created to safeguard borrowers from dodgy payday lenders and predatory mortgage salesmen.
The GOP thwarts regulatory agencies in order to enforce its “you’re on your own” philosophy. That is, each citizen, like an island, fends for himself in a world where the invisible hand of the market serves as regulator. Democrats believe something very different. They espouse the principles set out by President Teddy Roosevelt in his 1910 speech in Osawatomie, Kan., and echoed by President Obama in his address there last week. That is America and Americans are better when citizens work together and watch out for each other, that cooperating invigorates the individual, the economy and the nation, and that primacy is in people and profit is subordinate.
The late Senator Paul Wellstone expressed the essential sentiment most succinctly:
“We all do better when we all do better.”
Republicans don’t ascribe to that. They want to set up a country where every person is responsible for every aspect of daily life, from ensuring drinking water is safe to reducing workplace hazards. The GOP wants to shred regulations that protect citizens, even eliminate the federal agencies that enforce them. Congressional Republicans have worked to defund the Environmental Protection Agency, a move that would “empower” each citizen to persuade big industrial polluters to limit the particulates, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and lead belching from smokestacks.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said he’d reverse laws forbidding child labor –the same regulations Teddy Roosevelt endorsed to keep youngsters in classrooms and out of factories. In a nation deeply concerned about the quality of schools and the quantity of imported oil, GOP candidate Rick Perry plans to close the Education and Energy departments. Republican candidate Ron Paul would abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the organization citizens created to aid fellow Americans who fall victim to natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.
But that’s just the point: Republicans don’t believe Americans should help each other – they should only help themselves. In the GOP view, greed and selfishness aren’t sins. They’re virtues.
That’s a new fangled philosophy for Republicans, however. Wealthy Republican Teddy Roosevelt, a big game hunter and war hero who led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill to win the Spanish-American War, might be expected to be a rugged individualist of the go-it-alone ilk promoted by today’s GOP. But he wasn’t. He counseled against a cult of individualism, writing:
“The fundamental rule in our national life – the rule which underlies all others – is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.”
The concept is citizens working together for their mutual benefit and the advancement of their nation. American citizenship is not, Roosevelt said in his New Nationalism Address in Osawatomie in 1910, all about individual enrichment:
“Those who oppose all reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.”
That could have come from the mouth of an Occupy Wall Street protester.
Then there’s this from Roosevelt in Osawatomie on regulation:
“This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.”
His purpose was to ensure equal opportunity for all people who work hard, he said:
“I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”
One hundred and one years later in Osawatomie, President Obama reiterated those sentiments. He talked about how in the 75 years after Roosevelt’s speech, America moved toward fulfilling the Rough Rider’s goals. The nation decreased income inequality and increased opportunity. Hard work paid off, and anyone who strived could succeed. This gave rise to the largest middle class and strongest economy in world history.
But, over the past 25 years, this progress eroded. Income inequality rose dramatically. Simultaneously, opportunity diminished. The middle class shrank as hard work too frequently stopped paying off.
How to restore opportunity and shared prosperity is, Obama said, “the defining issue of our time.” Roosevelt sought it through the square deal. Obama called for something similar:
“I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules. Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1 percent or 99 percent values. They are American values, and we have to reclaim them.”
Obama rebuked on-your-own selfishness and greed, saying each American has a stake in the success of all Americans:
“We are greater together than we are on our own.”
Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute. He is a member of the IMF and ICEM global labor federations and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union. Follow @USWBlogger