by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
We’re likely to hear plenty of rhetoric tonight about President Obama’s big goals for the federal government in the years ahead. With that context in mind, you might appreciate Amity Shlaes‘ National Review Online column about a president who had much different priorities.
[Calvin] Coolidge’s minimalism did not represent weakness. Sometimes it takes more strength to be small than to be big, and that was true in Coolidge’s case.
As I recently noted in these pages (“Calling Cal,” August 13), Coolidge’s modesty was an expression not of uncertainty but of an obsession with avoiding the corruption of office. By 1929, when Coolidge left Washington, he had completed the legislative tasks Harding had only started. His 50 vetoes had held back the Progressives; his federal budget contained less spending in 1929 than it had in 1924. The harmony between Coolidge’s modest goals and his modest comportment lent the whole undertaking credibility. He restored the reputation of the presidency and the federal government, wiping away the damage of Harding’s tenure. …
… My sense is that many Republican political failures, long-term or short-, can be blamed on the party’s unwillingness to try out the small presidency again. The first such failure was the unfortunate Hoover, who, as Romney might have done, favored engineering. Loving nothing better than managing the complex details of grand deals, Hoover often concluded agreements that pleased all parties but hurt the economy. An example was his meticulous negotiation of the Smoot-Hawley tariff. Hoover was so pleased with his adaptations to a mechanism called the “flexible tariff” that he overlooked the damaging signal the tariff sent to foreign nations. They retaliated, accelerating the downward spiral of world trade.
Next came the Kansan Alf Landon, Franklin Roosevelt’s opponent in 1936. Landon ran on a platform only slightly less ambitious than Roosevelt’s — New Deal Lite — and lost. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon similarly blurred the distinction between the two parties when he opted to play economic superhero at Camp David, ending the gold standard and imposing wage and price controls. These policies were popular at the time, but they hurt the party for decades: “We are all Keynesians now,” Nixon’s phrase, too often meant we were all Democrats as well. Ronald Reagan, strong as he was, also fits in here. We can see some of Coolidge in him, for, like Coolidge, he cut taxes, looked away from details, and delegated routinely. But his willingness to permit continued federal spending produced a record of deficits that would undermine the Republican reputation for fiscal probity.
Republicans who are thinking past January’s ceremony to future inaugurations might consider this strategy: For small government and big results, don’t just think small. Be small, too.