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August 24, 2011 9:30 AM Huntsman: Theodore Roosevelt’s Last Stand in the GOP

By Alexander Heffner

“Conservation is conservative. I’m not ashamed to be a conservationist. I also believe that science should be driving our discussions on climate change…We will be judged by how well we were stewards of those [natural] resources,” Jon Huntsman, the Republican presidential candidate, told reporters recently.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation,” Theodore Roosevelt declared to the nation during the latter years of his presidency.

Might Jon Huntsman be the last best hope to revive TR’s environmental passion in the Grand Old Party?

“He’s the most TR-like among the current cast of Republican presidential contenders,” Sidney Milkis, a TR scholar and a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said in a recent interview.

Milkis concludes that if any Republican this cycle could rescue Roosevelt’s legacy of environmentalism before it is completely squashed in GOP memory, it’s Huntsman.

“In this political climate, it was courageous for him to say what he did. This notion of Republican stewardship of the environment ended after Nixon, the most recent embodiment of TR in the party.”

Today’s GOP has deviated quite far from TR’s political values as an activist executive. To show just how far Roosevelt—and Huntsman perhaps—is astray from mainstream Republican thought, just listen to Edmund Morris, TR’s most authoritative contemporary biographer.

“If TR were alive today, I think he would be a big government Democrat,” Morris said recently.

Back then, however, it wasn’t inconsistent to vouch for environmental causes and go shooting. A true outdoorsman was a conservationist as well as a hunter and a gun owner.

TR believed that nothing compared in importance, short of war, to ensuring that Americans leave “a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” He said there was zero defense for robbing the next generation of precious natural resources.

Even if most remembered (and politically caricatured) for his efforts as a trust-buster, Roosevelt was the environmentalist’s environmentalist.

“To Theodore Roosevelt, the environment was a vivid metaphor for the country’s concerns,” writes the Environmental Defense Fund on its Website.

It would be hard for any president—Democrat or Republican—to top Roosevelt’s green accomplishments. During his tenure as president from 1901 to 1909, TR created 51 wildlife refugees as well as the National Park Service.

He spearheaded the Antiquities Act to bar looting on public lands and launched the U.S. Forest Service and the first National Bird Preserve, crusading for and adopting countless measures to protect air and water quality, forests and animal life.

“Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals,” TR told his fellow citizens.

A precocious advocate for conservation, he warned of American over-consumption and the consequent need to preserve our natural resources.

Ultimately, Roosevelt was derailed by his own progressivism, on business regulation more than the environment. After initially deciding against a second term, TR re-entered the political ring only to be rejected by party establishment, which favored the more conservative incumbent, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt’s unsuccessful Bull-Moose third-party efforts split the vote, ultimately handing Woodrow Wilson the presidency in 1912.

TR and Huntsman, in addition to their environmental advocacy, overlap in a few other, if less meaningful, ways.

Both are former governors with experience abroad: Huntsman, a Mormon missionary in Asia and veteran ambassador to the continent; Roosevelt, a colonel in the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war in Cuba. Roosevelt’s admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick” (and his diplomatic engagements in Latin America) isn’t incompatible with Ambassador Huntsman’s advocacy of negotiation.

While Huntsman’s road to the nomination may seem improbable—winning over primary voters with an environmentally-friendly record and little name recognition—look only to President Obama’s unthinkable defeat of all-but-certain Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

We can’t know for sure if Huntsman would be capable of recapturing TR’s ethos for conservatives, or if they are dead for good. But one thing probably shouldn’t be in dispute: Huntsman may be the final stand for Roosevelt’s brand of Republicanism.

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Alexander Heffner , a freelance journalist, has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and Newsday