FloridaVoices.com posts JMI Resident Fellow Bill Mattox’s opinion editorial: “Is Mitt Romney the Second Coming of Calvin Coolidge?”
Text of Column:
When Chris Christie gave his keynote address at the Republican National Convention, I couldn’t help but notice that he bears a curious resemblance to all three major candidates from the 1912 presidential election.
In girth, Christie looks like a William Howard Taft Republican. In style, he uses the bully pulpit like that pugnacious Bull Moose, Theodore Roosevelt. And in position, he serves as Governor of New Jersey, just as Woodrow Wilson did.
When I think of which president GOP nominee Mitt Romney most resembles, there’s little question that it is Calvin Coolidge, a former Massachusetts governor often described as stiff, reticent and socially awkward. In fact, Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said that Coolidge looked “as though he had been weaned on a pickle.” And Dorothy Parker, upon learning that “Silent Cal” had died, reportedly asked, “How can they tell?”
Interestingly, Coolidge often played along with his critics. When Parker announced at a dinner party that she had bet someone she could get more than two words out of Coolidge, Silent Cal responded, “You lose.” Similarly, Coolidge once observed, “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President – and I think I will go along with them.”
Romney would probably benefit from displaying a similar self-deprecating wit. He might also help himself by mimicking Coolidge’s famous line, “Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.” Romney almost surely would benefit from pledging to govern like Coolidge.
During his time as mayor of Northampton, Mass., Coolidge somehow managed to cut taxes, increase teachers’ salaries and retire some of the city’s debts. He produced a similar record as governor of Massachusetts. And as president, Coolidge reduced federal spending, cut income taxes and helped generate enough economic growth to enable the U.S. Treasury to retire one-quarter of its debt.
Coolidge is often derided for saying, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Yet, interestingly, the context for this Romney-like “gaffe” was a 1925 speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in which Coolidge exhorted the “mainstream media” of his day to do a better job covering the concerns of ordinary Americans striving to climb the economic ladder and make a better life for themselves.
Similarly, historian Robert Sobel believes that those who criticize Coolidge for being too “laissez-faire” fail to understand his fidelity to the constitutional principle that Romney has invoked in health policy: federalism. Sobel notes that when Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts, he supported measures (like reducing the work week from 54 hours to 48 hours) that he refused to nationalize as president because “such matters were considered the responsibilities of state and local governments.”
Whatever one makes of Romney’s policy prescriptions, I suspect many Americans would welcome a Coolidge-like commitment from the GOP nominee (and from President Obama) to avoid the politics of personal destruction in favor of substantive campaign speeches focused on one’s philosophy of governing. That sort of strategy is not only high-minded, but it also increases the likelihood that Americans will elect the candidate who best reflects their beliefs about government.
In the 1920s, Coolidge’s view of limited government fit the times. As Walter Lippmann once noted, Silent Cal’s political genius lay in his talent for embodying the growing belief that “government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy.”
Nearly 100 years later, many Republicans are no doubt hoping that Mitt Romney will somehow manage to do the same.