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BOOK REVIEW: When two conservatives ran
Question of the Day
In his excellent book “The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election,” Garland S. Tucker III provides a timely perspective on the last election in which both major parties nominated candidates committed to limited government, low taxes and individual liberty. Ever since, Mr. Tucker posits, “the Republican Party has generally been the conservative party, while the Democratic Party has not even seriously considered nominating a conservative candidate.”
Mr. Tucker’s historical analysis is well-researched, objective and informative, his prose lucid and succinct. One comes away from this book with a newfound appreciation for the period and the lessons it holds for the current day. And with genuine admiration for Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis, principled men of exceptional character whose formative years and formidable accomplishments are deftly capsuled.
Mr. Tucker provides a cogent overview of the major parties’ origins and fortunes in the decades after the Civil War. The Democrats, historically “a coalition of disparate groups,” strove to find candidates who could “hold the South” while gaining enough votes among “midwestern farmers” and in “urban centers with heavy immigrant populations” to win an electoral majority. Dominant nationally, the Republicans saw themselves “as the voice of political stability, American business, and strength at home and abroad.”
Late in the 1800s, “progressives” gained influence in both parties. Both the Republican presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson expanded the power and scope of the federal government.
In 1920, a severe postwar recession prompted a backlash against Wilson’s policies. Republican conservative Warren G. Harding and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge, won the 1920 election.
Harding (who died in 1923) and Coolidge cut government spending, lowered the highest tax rates and took more than a quarter of taxpayers off the rolls. Their policies worked. Unemployment fell from 6.7 to 3.2 percent, and gross domestic product grew at a robust rate of 4.7 percent.
Prosperity was widespread by 1924. The public credited Coolidge, and he easily won the Republican presidential nomination.
The Democratic convention, by contrast, showcased deep divisions over the nationally strong Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition and other issues. A stalemate finally was broken on the 103rd ballot with the nomination of a compromise candidate - John W. Davis, the former solicitor general and ambassador to England.
A third-party movement that year saw renegade Wisconsin Republican Sen. Robert M. LaFollette run on the Progressive ticket, proposing policies called “radical” by both major parties. LaFollette’s campaign targeted sympathetic voters of both parties.
In 1932, the Democrats adopted a “relatively conservative platform.” Davis, in a New York Times article headlined “Why I am a Democrat,” made the case for Franklin D. Roosevelt and against Herbert Hoover (who had increased taxes and spending after the 1929 crash) by saying:
“Any nation that continues to spend more than it receives is headed for inevitable disaster; neither a nation nor a man can find solvency by borrowing; neither he nor it can spend its way into prosperity nor beg itself into comfort. … If the Democratic Party is successful it will balance the budget.”
Once in office, however, FDR and the new Congress moved quickly to empower the central government and exert control over the economy.
Reading this, one cannot but note that our current Democratic president has seen and raised the heavily criticized spending policies of his Republican predecessor, quadrupling the national deficit and radically expanding the regulatory reach of Washington. As Yogi Berra once said, it’s “deja vu all over again.”
Similarly, while the Republicans “did not conclusively embrace conservatism until 1964 nor bring it back into the White House until 1980,” they have become the party of limited government and greater individual liberty. Mr. Tucker also notes that the Coolidge response to recession, lower taxes and less spending, worked in the 1920s and again in 1980, while after 1932, higher taxes and greater spending led to prolonged stagnation.
Mr. Tucker concludes by suggesting that, in the current economic crisis, we “consider the lives, the words, and the warnings of two of America’s greatest conservatives, John W. Davis and Calvin Coolidge.” His engaging book provides substantial support for this recommendation.
Mr. Tucker, whom I know, is the chief executive of a publicly traded finance company. He has obviously enjoyed a very successful business career. How fortunate for the rest of us that he also maintained a lifelong interest in history.
Ray Hartwell is a Navy veteran and Washington lawyer.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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