2012 chal­lenge: Find­ing Calvin Coolidge’s heir

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

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).

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