2012 challenge: Finding Calvin Coolidge’s heir
As the 2012 election approaches, the stakes could not be higher. By most accounts, the Republicans hold that rare opportunity to unseat an incumbent president. Whom they nominate will determine the outcome of the election and, if their nominee is elected, the success of the next four — or eight — years. While history can never precisely predict the future, it can — and should — be a guide.
The two most successful Republican presidents in the last century were Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. There were striking similarities between these two men and their presidencies. Success for both was marked by significant reductions in income tax rates and domestic spending, strong economic growth in the private sector, re-election by huge margins, and the trust and affection of the American public.
As Fred Barnes has written, “When Ronald Reagan took down the portrait of Harry Truman in the Cabinet Room at the White House and replaced it with one of Calvin Coolidge, the press treated it as an act of meaningless eccentricity. It wasn’t. Reagan had been an admirer of Coolidge for many years. For him, the change of portraits had real meaning. Their experiences, their values, even the issues that most engaged them were the same for Reagan and Coolidge.”
First and foremost, they were men of character. Coolidge embodied the classic New England virtues upon which the republic was founded: hard work, independent thinking, lack of pretense, sense of duty, perseverance, scrupulous honesty — they were the bedrock upon which he had been raised in rural Vermont and upon which he built his political career. In a decade of rapid social change, Coolidge’s somewhat old-fashioned virtues resonated with the American public. Coolidge inherited the unsavory scandals of his predecessor, Warren Harding, but so transparently honest was Coolidge that the stained Harding legacy never tarnished the Coolidge presidency.
How could such a seemingly simple man as Calvin Coolidge, who adhered so closely to traditional virtues and conservative, Jeffersonian government, have captured the respect, admiration and even affection of the American people? After pondering the Coolidge phenomenon for eight years, Walter Lippmann finally concluded at the end of Coolidge’s tenure, “Americans feel, I think, that they are stern, ascetic and devoted to plain living because they vote for a man who is.”
Reagan came from a modest Midwestern background. He exhibited an honest openness and total lack of pretense that were at once a bit old-fashioned but also deeply appealing to the American public. The public instinctively believed that Reagan would tell them the unvarnished truth and that they could trust him.
As Peggy Noonan has argued brilliantly in “When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan,” “The secret of Reagan’s success was no secret at all. It was his character — his courage, his kindness, his persistence, his honesty and his almost heroic patience in the face of setbacks — that was the most important element of his success.”
Contemporary pundits often considered Coolidge and Reagan intellectual lightweights, but a closer examination of their speeches and writings reveals that each man had a tightly reasoned, thoughtfully articulated and highly principled philosophy of government. British historian Paul Johnson considers Coolidge “the most internally consistent and singleminded of American presi- dents.” Similarly, Reagan’s success in governing was often attributed to his unyielding allegiance to a handful of key principles. While the simple New England Puritan and the Hollywood B-grade actor were dismissed regularly by the sophisticated opinion-makers of their day, the American people recognized in each man a wellspring of honesty, candor and common sense.
The guiding tenets of governing for these two men were quite similar.
Both believed the role of government was appropriately limited by the Constitution. They were equally convinced in the creative power of individual initiative. Coolidge explained, “I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom.” Similarly, Reagan famously admonished, “Government is not the answer but the problem.”
It may surprise some to know that supply-side economics did not, in fact, begin with Arthur Laffer and Ronald Reagan, but rather with Andrew Mellon and Calvin Coolidge. For both presidents, tax reduction was not just an economic issue — but rather a moral issue. Coolidge termed high taxes “a species of legalized larceny.” These men knew the creation of jobs comes from the private sector, not government. They single-mindedly sought and achieved significant tax reduction and subsequently oversaw unprecedented economic growth as a result. Under Coolidge, the top income tax rate was slashed from 77 percent to 24 percent, and government spending was reduced by 35 percent.
Gross domestic product grew at the fastest rate ever recorded for any eight-year period in U.S. history. Reagan similarly achieved major reductions in tax rates and greatly simplified the tax code, all of which resulted in the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history.
Today, the country longs for a candidate of such character, vision, discipline, experience, common sense, civility and humor. If the GOP can nominate a candidate for 2012 in the Coolidge-Reagan mold, the party — and the country — will be well served.
Garland S. Tucker III is author of “The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge and the 1924 Election” (Emerald Book Co., 2010).