no one has yet asked the simple, key question that would instantly decide who the best candidate is. And that question is: if elected, which president’s portrait would you put up in the Cabinet room? Ronald Reagan famously put Calvin Coolidge’s portrait in the Cabinet room, to near-universal jeers from the Washington establishment. But it was a sign that Reagan really meant what he said about wanting to limit government. Coolidge is the right answer, though Warren Harding would also be a great answer.
By contrast, recall that one of the Presidents Bush—I forget which one now—put Eisenhower’s portrait up in the Cabinet room. Ike was a great man, a steady and decent president, but by no means any kind of principled conservative. To the contrary, he expanded New Deal programs (gave us the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, for example), and was only weakly partisan on behalf of the Republican Party. And the less said about his Supreme Court picks the better. Putting Ike’s portrait up in the Cabinet room was a sure sign that we couldn’t expect much of a fight against Washington from that administration.
If you asked this question of the field, of course they’ll all trip over themselves to say Ronald Reagan. So they’ll have to be asked to name two. This is where it would get interesting. I’m guessing Romney would say something stupid like Teddy Roosevelt, or even name a Democrat like Harry Truman just to pander to the center. Perry would be very unlikely to name Lincoln, for all of the usual reasons of being a former southern Democrat. Cain might well name Lincoln, which would be fine if predictably safe. Bachmann will be the most interesting, as I’ll bet she’d name a founding-era figure like Jefferson or Madison (who was actually a rather poor president) or even Adams. Newt, as usual, will be the wild card. Will he go with Teddy Roosevelt, with whom he feels some affinity, and thereby blow his little bit of momentum? Might he do something interesting like Grover Cleveland, the conservative Democrat with a slightly colorful personal life? (Though it wouldn’t surprise me if Cleveland was Ron Paul’s choice.)