Action is something Americans of both parties demand of their presidents these days. This is natural for Democrats, whose heritage is all action, starting with Franklin Roosevelt and his Hundred Days. But Republicans like energy and a big executive as well. Over the course of the campaign this past year, any number of political stars, including Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, argued that only an energetic candidate would be up to the job of managing the U.S. fiscal crisis. Mitt Romney worked hard to let voters know his party could beat the Democrats in the legislative arena. He swore up and down that, à la Roosevelt, he would get off to a running start, sending five bills to Congress and signing five executive orders on his first day in the Oval Office.
The Grand Old Party’s abiding affection for a “bigger and better” presidency isn’t entirely logical. After all, the Obama presidency commenced with an effort to reenact the Hundred Days. Yet President Obama’s first-term economic performance itself was not “big” but mediocre, tiny even. Perhaps Republicans should consider whether inaction on the part of the White House can be desirable. Perhaps, led by Republicans, the United States could benefit from trying out an unfashionable idea: the small presidency.
Evidence from a near-forgotten period, the early 1920s, instructs us. In those days the country was suffering economic turmoil similar to our own. Because of a crisis — World War I — the government had intruded in business and financial markets in unprecedented fashion, nationalizing the railroads, shutting down the stock market, and entering the debt market with war bonds.
Central bankers warned that the only reason the government’s large debt hadn’t set off a fiscal apocalypse was that interest rates had not yet commenced what they deemed an inevitable rise. Angry veterans, many of them disabled, were having trouble finding jobs, and many people assumed a new federal entitlement, veteran pensions, would be established within the year. A recent and active president, Theodore Roosevelt, had taught the nation that the Oval Office was a “bully pulpit.”
But this was not the view of the two candidates on the 1920 Republican ticket, Warren Harding of Ohio and Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts. The pair coolly campaigned on the humdrum, underwhelming motto of “normalcy,” meaning a reduction in uncertainty. The White House was no bully pulpit; the Republican elephant should not be an elephant in a china shop. After winning the presidency, Harding continued to endorse inaction. “No altered system will work a miracle,” Harding told the crowds at his March 1921 inauguration. “Any wild experiment will only add to the confusion. Our best assurance lies in efficient administration of the proven system.” Harding wanted to ensure that government did less so that commerce might enjoy free range. He pushed for and got tax cuts for businesses hindered by large levies, and he readied a plan to privatize naval oil reserves.
Harding also provided displays of austerity. He canceled an inaugural ball that was to be held at the public’s expense, and even let his wife Florence know she would not need a ball gown. He backed and signed a budget law that helped the executive curtail congressional spending. And he crafted a compromise with veterans that enabled the government to avoid granting the expected veteran pensions: It would provide hospitals, but not cash, for vets.
But despite these measures, Harding was not really cut out to be a small president. His personality was big, and he tended to do things in a big way. The inconsistency between the man and his announced intentions was evident even on the night of the inauguration: The official ball was indeed canceled, but the Hardings put on finery and partied at an opulent private ball held by the owner of the Washington Post, Edward McLean, and his wife, Evalyn.
Harding’s friends loved him, and he loved them back — too much. More than once he appointed old cronies to office, regardless of their merits. To head the Veterans Bureau, the product of his compromise with the vets, Harding tapped his old acquaintance Charles Forbes. An Ohio buddy, Harry Daugherty, got the attorney general’s post.
Even when it came to legislating smaller government, Harding tended to favor a big style, demanding extra sessions of Congress to implement his agenda.
Soon it all went wrong for Harding. The president’s demand for special legislative sessions backfired, because it gave lawmakers more time to introduce legislation of their own, and therefore gave Harding more projects to battle. His exuberant affection for his former colleagues in the Senate made it especially difficult for him to oppose their legislation, and in the end he vetoed only six bills. The buddies he appointed to high office routinely undermined his case for small government.
The sale of some of the Navy’s oil reserves — a reasonable-sounding privatization — morphed into the scandal we know as Teapot Dome because Harding allies, including campaign donors, handled the transaction improperly. The neat Veterans Bureau compromise failed because Charles Forbes took large kickbacks on the construction of the veterans’ hospitals. When Americans saw that government-run hospitals were corrupt, demands for direct payments seemed reasonable.
Within two years, Harding’s legislative campaign had stalled, a casualty of the inconsistency between the personality and the program of the 29th president.
After Harding died suddenly in 1923 while on a trip to the West, the taciturn Coolidge became president, and he went on to be elected in his own right in 1924. Coolidge’s aims differed little from Harding’s: Indeed, he told the Post’s McLean that he aimed to carry out Harding’s plans “to perfection.” But where Harding had relished the limelight, Coolidge shrank from it. Where Harding had led, Coolidge now delegated. As vice president, the New Englander had struck Washington socialites with his silence, and as president he continued to do so.
Many rated Coolidge weak. Some were even astounded that the presidency should come to such a nonentity. H. L. Mencken wondered at a country that, given all the possible choices for president, “including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, [would] pick out the Hon. Mr. Coolidge to be the head of state.” Thrifty to the point of stinginess, Coolidge eschewed attention and insisted the White House do so as well. Observant Washingtonians noted that the food at the White House became less good and that the liquor no longer flowed as it had in Harding’s day. Coolidge kept the White House kitchen on such a tight budget that he drove out the housekeeper who had served there since the Tafts’ day.
He so irritated many in Congress that lawmakers overrode some of his vetoes. In frustration, he resorted to the pocket veto, which could not be overridden. In total Coolidge issued 50 vetoes, among them 30 pocket vetoes. And he declined to run for reelection in 1928, forgoing a near-certain chance at victory. That earned him the contempt of his very practical party.
But 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.
Unfortunately, the small presidency did not last more than a few weeks beyond Coolidge’s departure from office in 1929. Even before the stock-market crash later that year, his successor, Herbert Hoover, was making big plans. “There is another atmosphere around there [in addition to] the Coolidge atmosphere,” wrote the journalist William Allen White. “It is the Roosevelt atmosphere, stepped down through a vast transformance, but still Rooseveltian, muffled but quite as vigorous. At the table Hoover lets the conversation die. Roosevelt never did. But at the desk, I fancy, Hoover gets more done than Roosevelt. And both are going in the same direction.”
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.
– Amity Shlaes, who directs the George W. Bush Institute’s economic-growth program, is the author of the book Coolidge, forthcoming from HarperCollins.