24 William Howard Taft

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here:https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

William Howard Taft’s biggest failing as president was his complete lack of political skill. He wasn’t a self promoter like his mentor, Teddy Roosevelt, instead he preferred to quietly do the job given him, hoping someone higher up would notice, and promote him into the next position. This worked well for Taft, as he went from one position to another in government until Roosevelt got him nominated as his successor. Taft easily defeated Bryan, in Bryan’s third loss in a Presidential election.

Taft was elected largely to carry out Roosevelt’s programs, and contrary to popular belief, this he did. In four years, Taft withdrew nearly as many acres of land for conservation as Roosevelt did. He also prosecuted twice as many anti-trust lawsuits as Roosevelt. Unlike Roosevelt, however, Taft’s prosecutions were based on the law, whereas Roosevelt cherry picked his suits, prosecuting cases for what he saw as “the greater good”.

In fact, the two biggest differences between Taft & Roosevelt were style and constitutionality. Taft was far more soft spoken and subdued, whereas Teddy was more confrontational & flamboyant. Roosevelt’s outspoken style contributed to the Panics of 1903 & 1907, Taft’s more even tempered tone didn’t frighten business, which led to a far better economy under Taft. The other difference is that Taft was a constitutional President, that was careful not to overstep his bounds. Roosevelt felt  justified in doing anything that was for “the greater good” regardless of how unconstitutional the action was.

Taft got passage of the Mann-Elkins Act, a dubious law that empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission to suspend railroad rate hikes and to set rates. The act also expanded the ICC’s jurisdiction to cover telephones, telegraphs, and radio. Government price fixing, no matter how noble the cause, is never justified, and compounds problems down the road. This law, however, is the type of Act that Teddy Roosevelt would have gladly signed and touted as a major accomplishment.

Taft also proposed the 16th Amendment, which legalized the federal income tax. An income tax not only punishes success, it requires citizens to allow the federal government to investigate their entire financial history. One could argue that such a law goes against the ideals of the fourth Amendments restrictions against unreasonable searches and seizures without just cause. The IRS can audit any citizen at anytime on its own authority.

One area where Taft was willing to take action, where Roosevelt dared not go, was tariff reform. Nearly every president before Roosevelt passed new tariff laws, but the “bull-moose” definitely lacked the courage to touch such a hot button issue. Taft asked for reduced tariffs, and congress sent him a law that reduced them modestly in the Payne-Aldrich Act. This law was reviled by both high-tariff and low-tariff supporters, striking a balance in the middle. Considering that the special interest groups on both sides hated it, it was probably a pretty good law. Historians, who tend to take a low tariff bias, hate the law as well, and deride Taft for the laws passage.

Dollar Diplomacy was Taft’s foreign policy. Rather than sending American troops into other countries, especially in Latin America, to keep other countries from invading by a third party country, as was the policy of Roosevelt, Taft decided to use American dollars as a way of promoting US interests abroad. The failing of such a policy is that it entangles the United States into the affairs of countries all over the world. It was a much better idea than taking over nations “for their own good” as Teddy Roosevelt & Wilson did, but it still left an obligation for the US to protect its investments.

Taft’s downfall in the presidency was also the very thing that gave it to him in the first place, Teddy Roosevelt. After coming home from touring Africa & Europe, Roosevelt obviously became bored of retirement and got the itch to become president again. Had he quietly supported Taft, and simply asked to take over again in 1912, Taft would have most likely obliged, as Taft disliked the presidency. The problem with such a scenario is that Roosevelt loved the lime-light and prestige of the Presidency, and probably couldn’t understand how anyone else couldn’t love it as well. Wanting to regain power again, Roosevelt decided to seize upon an incident where Taft had acted in the only proper way he could, when Gifford Pinchot for insubordination in 1910. Roosevelt used this incident as an excuse start attacking Taft, and to run against for the Republican nomination in 1912. When Roosevelt lost the nomination, he stormed out of the convention and created a third party, ensuring the election of Woodrow Wilson.

All in all, Taft wasn’t a bad president, he just wasn’t cut out for the office. He completely lacked the political skill one needs to be president, and had a mentality that was far better suited to being a Judge rather than a Chief Executive.

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