As the 2012 election approaches, the stakes could not be higher. By most accounts, the Republicans hold that rare opportunity to un- seat 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 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 single-minded of American presidents.” 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.
Coolidge and Reagan each assumed the presidency after serving terms as governor of a major state, Massachusetts and California, respectively. They brought to the White House a well-developed, pragmatic sense of when to compromise and when to hold the line.
Two similar events were of seminal importance in the careers of these men. In 1919, as governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge was confronted with a bitter police strike in Boston. He labored for weeks to avoid a showdown, but when the police union leaders called a strike, Coolidge acted decisively. He issued the following terse statement that resonated around the country, swiftly ended the strike and catapulted him onto the national stage: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere.” When faced with an explosive strike by the air traffic controllers in 1981, Reagan cited Coolidge’s aforementioned quote and acted similarly. Both men rejected the conventional wisdom of their political advisers, and history proved them right. Neither Coolidge nor Reagan required a public opinion poll to tell them what to think or how to act.
Despite the sobriquet “Silent Cal,” Coolidge was an expert at communicating his message to the American public. The first president to utilize radio, Coolidge consistently employed terse one-liners that resonated with the public. People recognized Coolidge for what he was - a straight-talking, common-sense conservative who, in the words of one commentator, “never wasted any time, never wasted any taxpayer’s money and never wasted any words.” The public respected, trusted and - somewhat surprisingly - liked Coolidge, and he even enjoyed the affection of the Washington press corps.
Although Reagan had a very different personality from Coolidge, he was universally hailed as “The Great Communicator.” Both men were able to communicate a handful of basic conservative principles in a manner that was understandable to the public and, at the same time, forged a bond of trust and respect.
Finally, Coolidge and Reagan were politicians of civility and, significantly, each man had a well-developed sense of humor. One of Coolidge’s guiding political principles was “I will not attack an individual” - and he didn’t. Similarly, Reagan issued his famous 11th commandment forbidding speaking ill of any fellow Republican, and, in William Buckley’s words, Reagan was “almost certainly the nicest man who ever occupied the White House.” Coolidge was famous for humorous one-liners, while Reagan was a walking repository of humorous stories and jokes. Their humor was often self-deprecating, and they always showed a keen sense of awareness of human limitations and foibles. The public seemed to appreciate that they never took themselves too seriously.