President Obama’s recent State of the Union address made it perfectly clear that the era of what former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels once called “shock-and-awe statism” will be with us for at least four more years. To find their way out of this mess, conservatives obviously need to look past President George W. Bush’s lamentable example of domestic profligacy and foreign adventurism over eight long years.
They would benefit, and at the state level are benefitting, from the remarkable conservative lessons of Calvin Coolidge. Amity Shlaes’s new biography, Coolidge, is a fine portrait of a president whose reputation has been restored after many decades of either being ignored or mocked.
Shlaes, a Bloomberg View economics columnist and author of the well-received The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (2007), has written a sympathetic chronicle of Coolidge’s disciplined rise from obscurity in Vermont to the presidency. She sees Coolidge much as Paul Johnson did in his Modern Times (1984), a volume that memorably celebrated Coolidge in a brilliantly drawn portrait. Johnson tendered a provocative claim about Coolidge: “No one in the twentieth century . . . defined more elegantly the limitations of government and the need for individual endeavour, which necessarily involved inequalities, to advance human happiness.” Shlaes’s book provides ample evidence to support this claim.
Following his formal education at Amherst College and admission to the bar after reading law, Coolidge methodically rose through the political ranks: mayor, state legislator (where he formulated an invaluable maxim: “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones”), governor, vice president, and then of course president. Coolidge made his national name when, as governor of Massachusetts, he fired striking police officers in 1919 (“There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time,” he argued). This episode shows that while Coolidge was, as Shlaes rightly observes, “our great refrainer,” he was also fully capable of decisive action when necessary. Because of his steadfastness in resolving the turbulent strike, Shlaes says that “Coolidge was suddenly a person to be followed.”
Reading Shlaes’s account of this bold action, one is reminded of Governor Scott Walker’s successful effort to rein in the collective-bargaining rapacity of public-employee unions in Wisconsin. He ably survived a well-funded effort to recall him for his reforms. Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey has also relentlessly confronted public-union (particularly teacher-union) excesses. As Coolidge saw in 1919 and Walker and Christie recognize today, when public unions act in a way that threatens the common good, principled resistance is leadership.
Shlaes also skillfully describes the easily overlooked subtleties of Coolidge’s accomplishments. She notes that at one point, a newspaper parodied Coolidge as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Shlaes’s reflection on this predictable depiction is a masterly summary of the Coolidge presidential record:
Yet if Coolidge was a Scrooge, he was a Scrooge who begat plenty. Coolidge served for sixty-seven months, finishing out Harding’s term after Harding died in early August 1923 and remaining until early March 1929. Under Coolidge, the federal debt fell. Under Coolidge, the top income tax rate came down by half, to 25 percent. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent or even 3 percent. Under Coolidge, Americans wired their homes for electricity and bought their first cars or household appliances on credit. Under Coolidge, the economy grew strongly, even as the federal government shrank. Under Coolidge, the rates of patent applications and patents granted increased dramatically. Under Coolidge, there came no federal antilynching law, but lynchings themselves became less frequent and Ku Klux Klan membership dropped by millions. Under Coolidge, a man from a town without a railroad station, Americans moved from the road into the air.
A presidential biographer who is conversant with economic history, Shlaes puts her finger on the source of this extraordinary commercial flourishing: “Coolidge kept government out of the way of commerce.”
Today, this principle is again being implemented with great dexterity in Kansas by Governor Sam Brownback. As the New York Times reports on this contemporary Coolidge project: “This month, the largest tax cut in Kansas history took effect, and most of its Medicaid system was handed over to private insurers. The bill introduced this week would pare taxes further, with the goal of eventually eliminating the state’s individual income tax. Brownback has already slashed the state’s welfare roll and its work force. He has merged government agencies and is proposing further consolidation. He is pushing for pension changes, to change the way judges are selected and for altering education financing formulas.” The contrast with the ceaseless federal orgy of borrowing and spending could not be sharper.
Coolidge’s example is most appealing today in the elusive but critical area of political temperament. The issue is crystallized in a line from Felix Frankfurter, then a professor at Harvard Law School and a leading liberal thinker. “Coolidge and Davis [Coolidge’s very conservative Democratic opponent],” Frankfurter wrote to the journalist Walter Lippmann, “have nothing to offer in 1924; they have no dreams.” Precisely. Coolidge was the very opposite of an ideological dreamer; he saw his vocation as a duty to provide the country that elected him with honest and frugal government that respected limits. Dreams were to be pursued in the vast areas of American life that fell outside the relatively narrow sphere of politics. In fact, the political dreaming sought by Frankfurter would be realized in the dystopian regimes that were ascendant throughout the world as he wrote.
To reestablish clarity of purpose, conservatives need to look back—not to linger in nostalgia but to recover viable governing principles. Shlaes’s biography is a well-guided tour of the life of a man who mastered the sound principles that our present political culture is ruinously rejecting.
Gregory J. Sullivan (Gregoryjsull@aol.com) is a lawyer who has written for First Things and The Weekly Standard.