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George Will

George Will: Trump stokes the Republican populism that Taft resisted

| Saturday, May 26, 2018, 3:41 p.m.

WASHINGTON

No elaborate catechism is required to determine if someone is a conservative. A single question, as simple as it is infallible, suffices: For whom would you have voted in the presidential election of 1912?

That year, a former president and a future president ran against the incumbent president, who lost, as did the country, which would have been much better off giving another term to William Howard Taft. Instead, it got Woodrow Wilson and the modern imperial presidency that had been prefigured by Taft's predecessor and second major opponent in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt. Taft's presidency was bracketed by Roosevelt's and Wilson's, the progenitors of today's imperial presidency.

Jeffrey Rosen, law professor at George Washington University and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, began writing his new appreciation of the 27th president, “William Howard Taft,” in January 2017, when the 45th president began inadvertently doing something useful — validating nostalgia for Taft, whom Rosen calls “the only president to approach the office in constitutional terms above all.”

Wilson was the first president to criticize the American founding, particularly for the separation of powers that crimps presidential supremacy. Roosevelt believed that presidents are free to do whatever the Constitution does not forbid. Taft's constitutional modesty held that presidents should exercise only powers explicitly granted by the document.

Romanticizers of Roosevelt ignore his belief that no moral equivalent of war could be as invigorating as the real thing, and they celebrate him as a trustbuster taming corporate capitalism and a pioneering environmentalist. Rosen notes, however, that Taft “extended federal environmental protection to more land than Roosevelt” — and he created 10 national parks — “and brought more antitrust suits in one term than Roosevelt brought in nearly two.”

Taft signed the first revision of tariffs, which are regressive taxes, since the 1890s, when they were raised by an average of 57 percent. His tariff message to Congress was just 340 words because he thought the Constitution and traditional political practice allowed presidents to recommend, but not lobby for, congressional action. Such was his constitutional reticence, in his inaugural address he referred to tariff reform as “a suggestion only.”

Taft unsuccessfully resisted President William McKinley's entreaties that he become governor of the Philippines (“I have never approved of keeping the Philippines”). Others wanted him to be president much more than he did. His aspiration, achieved after the presidency, was to be chief justice of the United States. As a reluctant president, he demonstrated that reluctance, which is vanishingly rare, is a recommendation for the office.

The 1912 strife between conservative and progressive-populist Republicans simmered until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 sealed conservatism's ascendancy in the party. This lasted 36 years, until it was supplanted by its antithesis, populism, 104 years after Taft resisted Roosevelt.

This, for a while, prevented American from having only a populist Republican Party to oppose a progressive Democratic Party — an echo, not a choice.

George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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