08/21/2012 09:41 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Stumbling With No Stick: The GOP Betrayal of Teddy Roosevelt

One hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt walked not so softly out of the Republican Convention, carried his big stick to the new Progressive Party convention, and became the "Bull Moose" nominee for president. As a result, both he and William Howard Taft lost, Woodrow Wilson won, and the Grand Old Party still is stumbling.

What fractured the GOP in 1912? And what would Teddy teach about the Tea Party takeover of the GOP in 2012?

As the 19th century came to a close, Roosevelt, the crusading New York City Police Commissioner, had become the reform governor of New York. But GOP bosses, aligned with big business, wanted him out. So they kicked him upstairs, persuading President McKinley to make Teddy his 1900 re-election running mate.

McKinley-Roosevelt defeated Bryan-Stevenson. The bosses were delighted, having relegated the hero of San Juan Hill to a quiet, ceremonial role. Thus, no doubt, they were doubly dismayed when, on September 6, 1901, McKinley was assassinated and the fiercely independent rough rider became president.

Teddy never walked softly. From the bully pulpit he waved his big stick and led big government into battle. Although politically conservative in some ways, this privileged aristocrat recognized that capitalism, left to its own devices, had failed miserably in two critical areas: self-regulation and environmental protection.

Teddy attacked. As the late Bard College historian James Chace explains in 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs -- the Election that Changed the Country, Roosevelt fought to "curb the excesses of big business," and to defeat "threats to the environment by the expansion of industry and population." To do both, he expanded federal authority ... he built big government.

Without Roosevelt and his Reform Republicans, unregulated monopoly capitalism would have continued to exploit the poor, squeeze the middle class, and choke the economy. Without Roosevelt and big government, much of the American wilderness would have been destroyed; our national parks would not exist.

Roosevelt completed McKinley's term and, in 1904, was elected for four years more. But in 1908, rather than seeking re-election, he opted for private life. Still, while leaving the White House, he would not risk his reforms. Thus, he persuaded Taft, his best friend and Secretary of War, to carry on.

But President Taft, elected in 1908, proved less adept and perhaps less committed to progressivism. While Teddy traveled the world (and, among other things, won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese war), Taft politically slipped. Still, for a few years, Teddy demurred. But when Taft fired U.S. Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot who, according to Chace, was "vital to Roosevelt's campaign to save the wilderness from rapacious loggers," Teddy had seen enough. He returned to the U.S. -- soon, his hat was in the ring.

Roosevelt defeated Taft in key Republican primaries. He arrived at the 1912 GOP convention ready to capture the nomination. But Taft, in control of the party apparatus, concocted successful challenges to Roosevelt delegates and won re-nomination. Teddy bolted, and the Bull Moose was born.

"It was clear," Chace writes, "that the outcome of the struggle between Roosevelt and Taft would shape the course of the Republican Party for years to come." But the outcome was unclear; they both lost. While finishing a distant third, Taft got enough votes to keep Roosevelt from winning. Wilson, with less than 42 percent of the popular vote, was elected.

"Theirs was a breach," Chace writes, "that would never be fully healed." Taft's faction became the GOP of big business; Teddy's, the GOP of financial reform, labor fairness, and environmental protection. And indeed, the breach has plagued the party ever since, sometimes tearing it apart (1952: Robert Taft/Eisenhower; 1964: Goldwater/Romney-Rockefeller-Scranton; 1976: Reagan/Ford; 2012: Tea Party/any who would dare).

But in 2012, as Republicans convene and proudly proclaim themselves the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, they will fail History 101. Lincoln, albeit in wartime, was a big government president. Roosevelt was a big government president. And as Jeb Bush recently pointed out, even Reagan, having raised taxes, would not pass today's Tea Party tests.

Teddy Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette, Margaret Chase Smith and Olympia Snowe, Eisenhower, Hatfield, Javits, Percy, Rockefeller, and George Romney -- they all believed that true conservatism requires a realistic appraisal of capitalism's vices as well as its virtues. They all understood that government must be sensitive to environmental vulnerability.

The Tea Party answered, demonizing "big government" taxation in order to justify greed, denying scientific consensus on climate change in order to exploit our environment. Teddy's GOP is dead.

Accepting the Progressive Party nomination in 1912, Roosevelt declared that the GOP must stand "for the rights of humanity, or else it must stand for special privilege." Addressing the GOP convention in 2012, he would be sickened. Gazing at his own portrait bannered above the stage, he would pound the podium, expose the no-tax nonsense, condemn the global warming denial. From his bully pulpit, Teddy would scream "Shame!" and bolt once again.