Much is being written today about the Republican party’s urgent need to find “the next Ronald Reagan.” With Governor Scott Walker’s recent rise in the polls, many pundits have rushed to dismiss his chances because “Walker is no Reagan.” But, hold on a minute. Are the pundits missing something here?
The two most successful Republican presidents in the last century were Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. A serious look at the two of them sheds light on the current question of Walker’s viability as a presidential candidate.
Different as Coolidge and Reagan were in looks and personality, there were striking similarities between these two men and their presidencies. Success for both was marked by significant reductions in income taxes and domestic spending, strong economic growth in the private sector, reelection by huge margins, and the trust and affection of the American people.
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.”
They both were above all 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 — these were the bedrock upon which he had been raised in rural Vermont and upon which he built his political career.
Reagan came from a modest Midwestern background. He exhibited an honest openness and total lack of pretense that were a bit old-fashioned but also deeply appealing to the American people. The public instinctively believed that Reagan would tell them the unvarnished truth and that they could trust him.
Modern pundits seem not to appreciate the importance of these traditional virtues. Could it be that the liberal voters of Wisconsin saw something in Walker that the sophisticated opinion leaders missed? When Walker looked the people in the eye and said, “I kept my promises,” they believed him — and reelected him.
Contemporaries often dismissed the New England puritan and the Hollywood B-grade actor as intellectual lightweights. Howard Dean’s recent sneers at Walker’s lack of academic credentials were reminiscent of the attacks on Coolidge and Reagan.
The guiding tenets of governing for these two presidents were quite similar. Both believed the role of government was appropriately limited by the Constitution. They were equally convinced of 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, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Walker’s message is similar — and clear: “I believe that smaller government is better government.”
Two similar events were of seminal importance in the careers of Coolidge and Reagan. 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 Coolidge onto the national stage: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” When faced with a crippling strike by the air-traffic controllers in 1981, Reagan quoted Coolidge’s statement and acted similarly. Both men rejected the conventional wisdom of their political advisers, and history proved them right. Coolidge and Reagan did not require public-opinion polls to tell them what to think or how to act.
Here the parallels are obvious. Walker’s famous showdown with the public unions elevated him onto the national stage. The liberal press was confident that this confrontation with the unions would be the end of Walker, but the Wisconsin voters felt differently. The manner in which Coolidge, Reagan, and Walker handled their respective crises won the admiration of the American people.
Despite the sobriquet “Silent Cal,” Coolidge was an expert at communicating his message. The first president to utilize radio, Coolidge consistently employed terse one-liners that resonated with the public. Americans 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 taxpayers’ money, and never wasted any words.”
Although Reagan’s personality was very different from Coolidge’s, he was widely hailed as “The Great Communicator.” Both men were able to get across to the people a handful of basic conservative principles.
Walker’s style of communication seems to fall somewhere in between Coolidge’s and Reagan’s. While not so sparing of words and quirky as Coolidge, he is not the natural communicator that Reagan was. However, the main point the pundits seem to be missing is that Walker’s personality and message do come through forcefully to voters.
Finally, Coolidge and Reagan were politicians of civility. One of Coolidge’s guiding political principles was “I will not attack an individual” — and he didn’t. Similarly, Reagan issued his famous Eleventh Commandment, forbidding speaking ill of any fellow Republican. In William Buckley’s words, Reagan was “almost certainly the nicest man who ever occupied the White House.”
Walker displays the same modest, self-deprecating attributes that were at the core of both Coolidge and Reagan. A frequent assessment is, “Walker’s just too unassuming — too nice — to be president.”
If the GOP can nominate a candidate for 2016 in the Coolidge–Reagan mold, the party — and the country — will be well served. Scott Walker might just be that candidate.
— Garland S. Tucker III is the CEO of an NYSE-listed financial-services company based in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, and the author of The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge and the 1924 Election (Emerald: 2010).