ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Twenty-twelve isn't just a presidential election year. It is the centennial of one of the great presidential elections. In 1912, no less than three presidents competed: one present, one past and one future. One went on to be chief justice of the United States. Another had been president of Princeton University.
Great ideas about the country were debated in 1912. And we thought that in these early days of 2012, we'd do well to think back on that time, a century ago. It was a Republican age. In the half century from the Civil War to 1912, only one Democrat had made it to the White House. The sitting president had been elected in 1908, Ohio Republican William Howard Taft.
PRESIDENT WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT: We are living in an age in which by exaggeration of the defects of our present condition, by false charges and responsibility for it against individuals and classes, by holding up to the feverish imagination of the less fortunate and the discontented, the possibilities of a millennium. A condition of popular unrest has been produced. New parties are being formed with the proposed purpose of satisfying this unrest by promising a panacea.
SIEGEL: In 1912, Taft's party split. He was opposed by the man who preceded him in the White House, a Republican who took a far rosier view of those less fortunate and discontented, Theodore Roosevelt.
PRESIDENT THEODORE ROOSEVELT: I believe that the majority of the plain people of the United States will, day in and day out, make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men, no matter what their training, will make in trying to govern them.
SIEGEL: Professor Sidney Milkis, of the University of Virginia, wrote the book, "Theodore Roosevelt, The Progressive Party, And the Transformation of American Democracy."
Professor Milkis, welcome to the program. And tell us what happened to drive these two Republican presidents, Taft and Roosevelt apart.
PROFESSOR SIDNEY MILKIS: Well, there were basically two issues, Robert. One was personal, Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed being president. When he left the White House in 1909, he missed it a lot more than he thought he would. And he was very anxious to get back in and Taft stood in his way.
The other thing was an important principle difference between them: They disagreed on fundamental constitutional issues. Theodore Roosevelt felt that the people needed to be empowered to control the giant corporations that had emerged, at the end of the 19th century. And so, he defended a program of pure democracy that would have created a direct connection between people and representatives.
And that included things like the recall of all public officials, including the president; referenda on court decisions, the courts then were very conservative and strongly defending the right of property; and also, making the amendment - the constitutional amendment process easier, so it would be more majoritorian(ph) than the existing Constitution.
William Howard Taft felt was that this would destroy the Constitution created by the Founders, and create a situation where demagogues like Theodore Roosevelt...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MILKIS: ...would a rouse public opinion for dangerous purposes.
SIEGEL: Well, now enter the man who won the election of 1912. The Democratic candidate for president was the governor of New Jersey, before that the president of Princeton; a Southerner by birth control. Woodrow Wilson, when he was recorded that year, he also spoke of trust and of monopolists and how to restrain them.
PRESIDENT WOODROW WILSON: We're not here to destroy the industry which these men have developed. But we are here to destroy the control over the industry of other people which these men have established.
SIEGEL: Wilson won decisively against the divided field. How would you characterize his view of government and his view of democracy?
MILKIS: He ran as a more moderate reformer than TR. He tried to position himself, triangulate I guess you could say, between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. He embraced some of the reforms TR celebrated like the recall and the referendum, but did not criticize the courts and did not call for a referendum in the courts . Nor did he call for an easier amendment process.
Another very important difference between TR and Wilson is, whereas TR - in taming the trust - called for an extensive regulation of business that would have really required a great expansion of the national government's powers. Wilson said that rather than creating a regulatory juggernaut, a better solution was to break big business up. And he proposed a militant, antitrust policy. He celebrated, in his campaign, The Man on the Make.
And the way to clear the path for The Man on the Make was to break business up, rather than attempt to create a government that would be powerful and dangerous enough to regulate.
SIEGEL: That was not regarded in 1912: The Man on the Make.
MILKIS: No, in fact, it resonated pretty substantially and Wilson argued that by supporting The Man on the Make, that America would not have it to create a big government. And big government was just as controversial then, Robert, as it is now - that we could have a return, as he put it, to normality.
SIEGEL: We should add, there was a fourth candidate in 1912, the socialist, Eugene V. Debs.
MILKIS: Yes. In fact, socialism was at high tide at this time. And a lot of people were beginning to look at the socialist party, which was developing into a very important reform party with a very popular candidate in Debs as the alternative to the Republican Party.
And I've argued that had T.R. not, so to speak, preempted the socialist party, short-circuited it and stolen its thunder by proposing a more moderate form of reform, then the socialist party might have gotten many more votes than it did get in 1912. It got six percent of the vote, its best showing in history, twice what it got in 1908, but I think it would have probably doubled that had the Progressive Party not intervened.
SIEGEL: Professor Milkis, thank you very much for talking with us.
MILKIS: Oh, it's been a great pleasure.
SIEGEL: That's Sidney Milkis, who's professor of politics and director of democracy and governance studies at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.