Time to Tap T.R

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

And renew the progressive tradition.

The BP spill is a failure not just of technology but ideology. That oil flows into the ocean from the deregulatory tide of the last 30 years. President Obama is right to compare the fiasco to 9/11. If he can frame the message more memorably than he did in his Oval Office address, Obama may yet use the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history to speed the transition to a green economy, just as George W. Bush used terrorism to refashion foreign policy. To do so, "deregulation"--once a Reaganite call to arms--must be transformed into an epithet. If the president can't put the antigovernment, Tea Party types in their place now, when will he? The legacy of the American progressive tradition is on the line.

Regulating industry in the public interest began a century ago with Theodore Roosevelt. He was the last Republican president who argued strongly that government had to check the free market--or else it would kill people. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and the raft of health and safety rules that came out of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, showed that regulation could save lives. In the New Deal and post-war period, regulations grew like Topsy. Some, like the creation in 1970 of the Environmental Protection Agency (the product of a Democratic Congress and the reluctant acquiescence of President Nixon), had a powerfully positive effect.

Regulating the economy, by contrast, often proved burdensome. Beginning with the deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, consumers benefited from relaxed economic strictures. But then came the Reagan era, when regulatory agencies were stocked with industry lackeys. The pendulum began swinging too far. Clinton Democrats, bolstered by new campaign donations from business, caught deregulatory fever.

This proved disastrous. Clinton protected environmental and safety regulations, but went along with Sen. Phil Gramm's idea to free financial institutions from meaningful oversight. By the Bush presidency, deregulation was out of control. Dick Cheney convened secret meetings on energy that handed regulation to industry. In 2002 I reported that, during his transition, Bush had assigned an old friend to interview candidates for chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A guy named Ken Lay, of Enron.

So BP's oil spill, or something like it, was inevitable. …