What the World Needs Now is Another Calvin Coolidge

The list of greatest United States’ presidents is generally comprised of presidents who say, “Yes,” because Americans prefer authority figures who say yes to them. Yet, one could argue that all of the creative ways American presidents, since Coolidge, have found to say yes to the American public has led to a federal debt currently spiraling out of control to a point of probable economic disaster at some point. One would think that Americans would eventually recognize the urgent need to find a political leader who is able to say no to them more often.  

When our parents told us no, we threw temper tantrums, but we eventually learned to adjust. Psychologists say that we not only do we learn to adjust, but as much as we hated having anyone dictate how we should live our lives in various ways, we appreciated the implicit structure hearing “no” every once in a while offers. What would it take for Americans to learn to adjust in this manner? Would we need an economic disaster? Without that what politician vying for the highest seat in the land would ever say no? Mr. or Mrs. 0% in the primary might say no, but who would hear them from the bottom of that well? The only difference between the parties, on this issue, can be found in the creative ways their candidates say yes.  

Conservatives impulsively leap for the name Ronald Reagan when anyone asks if any modern president exhibited noteworthy restraint, but is the Reagan administration the perfect model for the problems that currently sit before us? The Reagan administration pursued deregulation and tax cuts, of course, reducing the top marginal rate from 70 to 28 percent. But his tax cuts —which vindicated those supply-side economists influenced by Coolidge, by vastly increasing federal revenue —were bought partly through a bargain in which Reagan said yes to Democrats in Congress who were all too eager to spend the revenue that the Reagan tax cuts generated. This, coupled with Reagan’s generous spending on defense contracts lead many to say that compared to Coolidge, Reagan was not a true budget cutter, as the federal budget rose by over a third during his administration.

A better model for conservatives who prefer a more libertarian approach through austerity measures, might be the Calvin Coolidge administration. While president from 1923 to 1929, Coolidge sustained a budget surplus and left office with a smaller budget than the one he inherited. Over the same period, America experienced a proliferation of jobs, a dramatic increase in the standard of living, higher wages, and three to four percent annual economic growth. The key to this level of success was Coolidge’s penchant for saying “no.” If Reagan was the Great Communicator, Coolidge was the Great Refrainer, a title Reagan gave Coolidge. 

Calvin Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge

Following the Warren G. Harding/Coolidge ticket’s 1920 victory for the office of the president, President Warren G. Harding’s inaugural address set a dramatically different tone from that of the outgoing Woodrow Wilson administration:

“No altered system,” Harding said, “will work a miracle. Any wild experiment will only add to the confusion. Our best assurance lies in efficient administration of our proven system.”

Harding’s ego-less approach was that he would be nothing more than a steward of the American system that had worked just fine in the 130 years of America that preceded his election. Harding’s stance —as opposed to Woodrow Wilson’s— was that his administration wouldn’t try to outdo the prosperous model that The Founders created. Put in this light, what kind of ego looks at the model of America —that was, and is, the envy of the world— and thinks they can do it better? How many of them succeeded in this venture? Harding was basically saying that he didn’t regard himself as a “miracle worker” who would step into office with his think tank notions to tell the nation that he has a “new and improved” cure to all that ails us?

He was basically telling the American public that he wouldn’t present what we now call the “New Coke” formula that no one has ever thought of before. The actual “New Coke” campaign involved the Coca-Cola Company attempting to gain greater market share in 1985, by essentially copying the formula of its less popular competition Pepsi-Cola. Similarly, numerous narcissist U.S. presidents, before and after Harding and Coolidge, have attempted to impose formulas that have been tried and tested by other countries in history. The idea that those formulas have failed in those other countries, and America’s is the envy of the world, doesn’t stop “New Coke” advocates from believing they can administrate it to success. The legacy of Coca-Cola’s “New Coke” campaign, and the “New Coke” ideas in politics are influential as a cautionary tale against tampering with a well-established and successful brand. By saying that he would act as nothing more than a steward for the prosperous model The Founders created, Harding was displaying what some call the pinnacle of intelligence by stating that he was smart enough know what he doesn’t know. 

One of Warren G. Harding’s first steps was to shepherd through Congress the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. This bill allowed Harding to create a special budget bureau— the forerunner to today’s Office of Management and Budget— where Harding’s director of the bureau could cajole and shame Congress into making spending cuts. Unfortunately, some of Harding’s privatization policies, combined with some ill-advised appointments, led to bribery and favoritism, and ultimately to what would be called the Teapot Dome Scandal.

Enter Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge entered office, after Warren G. Harding’s sudden death, and separated himself almost immediately from Harding with his willingness to say “no” to appointees, Congressman, and to various “New Coke” bills. (Coolidge ended up vetoing fifty bills, a total that ends up being more than the last three presidents combined.) Coolidge summed up his penchant for vetoing these bills saying:

“It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.”

Calvin Coolidge was the type of president, the type of person, that if you asked him what time it was, he would tell you. Modern presidents get their tongues so tied up with advice from advisers, pollsters, and focus group testing, that they’re almost afraid to tell you what time it is based on the fact that a direct answer might be taken seven different ways by seven different networks that appeal to a 24-7 audience.

Within 24 hours of arriving in Washington after Harding’s death, Calvin Coolidge met with his budget director, Herbert Lord, and together they went on offense, announcing deepened cuts in two politically sensitive areas: spending on veterans and District of Columbia public works. In his public statements, Coolidge made clear he would have scant patience with anyone who didn’t go along:

“We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic of undeveloped people, or of a decadent generation.”

Perhaps reflecting his temperament, Coolidge favored the pocket veto —a way for the president to reject a bill without actually vetoing it, while giving Congress no chance to override it. Grover Cleveland, whom Coolidge admired, used this type of veto in his day, as had Theodore Roosevelt. But Coolidge raised its use to an art form. The New York Times referred to it as “disapproval by inaction.”

The words “perhaps reflecting his temperament” paint a nice portrait of President Calvin Coolidge, for when given the choice between grandstanding on an issue and quietly advocating or dismissing a bill, Coolidge opted for the quiet approach. The most illustrative story on this theme of restraint involved one of the greatest tragedies of Coolidge’s presidency. The great Mississippi River flood of 1927 was the Coolidge administration’s Hurricane Katrina. Rather than appear in a photo op, Coolidge chose not to appear on the grounds of the devastation fearing that doing so might encourage federal spending on relief. Another issue that might define the Coolidge administration in an historical manner involved the Klu Klux Klan. When faced with the problem of what to do with the powerful Klu Klux Klan, Coolidge quietly avoided appointing any Klan members to prominent positions in his cabinet, and he thereby decimated the power of that group in America. When faced with the dilemma of what to do with farming subsidies, the man from farming country, chose to veto the subsidies. He also vetoed veterans’ pensions and government entry into the utilities sector. 

If a modern politician even thought of doing any of these things (the maneuver with the Klan excluded), and they listed one of them in their campaign, how many of us would laugh them off the stage? The party’s leaders wouldn’t even consider them for their party’s ticket. The only obstacle for modern politicians is how to find a creative way to say yes that doesn’t tick off too many constituents who might want them to say no. 

Yet, how many tragedies does a nation as large as America face every day? How many constituents suffer as a result? The impulsive reaction for any person, politician, and president is to do whatever they can to end their suffering, yet how many unintended consequences arise from a president’s, and Congress’s decision to provide federal aid? How many of these problems could’ve been avoided if we had more presidents do whatever they could to train the country’s expectations to be more limited when the subject involves the federal government’s ability to fix their problems. As many informed politicos will tell us, it’s too late now. The country, thanks to nearly 100 years of conditioning from ego-driven presidents, seeking praise and adulation for their administration, has come to expect the president to do something. It’s a fait accompli now, and there’s little to nothing anyone can do to roll that back now. All of this may be true, but what if Harding’s special budget bureau survived the politics of the 70’s, and the president and Congress conditioned the country to accept the idea that the federal government has attained from taxpayer’s is finite? Would the American public let the locale drown, or would the most generous country in the world do whatever they can to help their fellow American out? Would the American citizen learn to look to their state, local, and even their own communities to aid them in times of crisis? It’s easier and far more popular for a president to just say yes, but I don’t think many objective, dispassionate observers would argue that America would be in a far better place if the presidents who followed Coolidge invested more of their political capital in his politics of no?  

“Four-fifths of all our troubles would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still.”

What came first the chicken or the egg? Did the “yes” politicians condition us to expect more yes from them, or did we condition our candidates for the office to say “yes” to everything? How many candidates stubbornly insist that we need to say no more often? Long question short, are we in unprecedented debt, because of the ruling class, or because Americans have the country we want? 

Whereas the current barometer of the presidency is set on how much, and how often, they spend other people’s money, Coolidge exhibited a level of restraint politicians often reserve only for their own money.

Despite the budget surpluses the Coolidge administration accrued during his presidency, he met with his budget director every Friday morning before cabinet meetings to identify budget cuts and discuss how to say “no” to the requests of other cabinet members, and other politicians up and down the ticket. Think about that for just a moment before reading on. Think about how a modern politician, on any level, would react to even a momentary surplus. The impulsive reaction, some might even say instinctive reaction, is to find the best way to allocate that surplus for greater political gain, and to reward those who played a pivotal role in securing the surplus by allocating funds for a bridge in the Congressman’s district for example. How many politicians, by comparison, would meet with budget directors, Congressmen, etc., to find further ways to cut. Most presidents give in after a time —Eisenhower being a good example— but Coolidge did not, despite the budget surpluses accrued during his presidency. 

In a conference call with Jewish philanthropists, Coolidge explained his consistency this way:

“I believe in budgets. I want other people to believe in them. I have had a small one to run my own home; and besides that, I am the head of the organization that makes the greatest of all budgets, that of the United States government. Do you wonder then that at times I dream of balance sheets and sinking funds, and deficits and tax rates and all the rest?”

Speaking of tax rates, in December 1923, Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon launched a campaign to lower top rates from the fifties to the twenties. Mellon believed, and informed Coolidge, that these cuts might result in additional revenue. This was referred to as “scientific taxation”—an early formulation that would later influence economist Art Laffer to develop what we know as the Laffer curve. Coolidge passed word of this insight on:

“Experience does not show that the higher tax rate produces larger revenue. Experience is all the other way,” he said in a speech in early 1924. “When the surtax on incomes of $300,000 and over was but 10 percent, the revenue was about the same as it was at 65 percent.”

The more recent egos who have occupied the tax payer funded seat of president would likely show a blush at the mention of the power and prestige they have achieved by attaining residence in The White House. That humble blush would be shown in the manner a 70’s comedian would show one hand to reject the applause he was receiving, while the other, jokingly, asked for more applause. Calvin Coolidge rejected congratulatory mentions of his power completely. When Senator Selden Spencer took a walk with Coolidge around the White House grounds, the Senator asked the president playfully, “Who lives there?”

“Nobody,” Coolidge replied. “They just come and go.”

For all the praise that authors like Amity Shales heap on Coolidge, some of his critics state that his policies caused The Great Depression and others say they did not prevent them.

“That is an argument I take up at length in my previous book, The Forgotten Man, and is a topic for another day,” Amity Shales said. “Here let me just say that the Great Depression was as great and as long in duration as it was because, as economist Benjamin Anderson put it, the government under both Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, unlike under Coolidge, chose to “play God.”

Three lessons we can learn from the Coolidge presidency:

Beyond the inspiration of Coolidge’s example of principle and consistency, what are the lessons of his story that are relevant to our current situation? One certainly has to do with the mechanism of budgeting: The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 provided a means for Harding and Coolidge to control the budget and the nation’s debt, and at the same time give the people the ability to hold someone responsible. That law was gutted in the 1970s, when it became collateral damage in the anti-executive fervor following Watergate. The law that replaced it tilted budget authority back to Congress and has led to over-spending and lack of responsibility ever since. On this note, one could say that Congressional control of the budget is outlined in The Constitution, and that Congress is more representative of the American citizenry. As I wrote above, however, the budget director’s primary job was to cajole and shame Congress into making spending cuts. That wouldn’t play in the 70’s, and it definitely wouldn’t play in the modern era. As such, Coolidge’s quote, “I don’t fit in with these times” would definitely describe a modern day Coolidge, as he probably couldn’t be elected dog catcher. The American people have stated that they prefer an out of control budget with massive spending.

A second lesson we can derive from the Coolidge administration concerns how we view tax rates. Our natural inclination is to believe that higher tax rates produce larger revenue. As Coolidge states, “Experience is all the other way.” The reason behind this is a complicated formula that some suggest raising taxes results in more people or corporations engaging in less taxable activity. Coolidge’s experience with the code suggested that lowering taxes, until we find that sweet spot, encourages greater taxable activity, and thus more taxable revenue arriving in the government’s coffers. Tax policy can also be a mechanism to expand government. The goals of legitimate government —American freedom and prosperity — are left by the wayside. Thus the best case for lower taxes is the moral one — and as Coolidge well understood, a moral tax policy does not demand higher taxes but tougher budgeting.

Finally, a lesson about politics. The popularity of Harding and Coolidge, and the success of their policies — especially Coolidge’s — following a long period of Progressive ascendancy, should give today’s conservatives hope. Coolidge in the 1920s, like Democrat Grover Cleveland in the previous century, distinguished government austerity from private-sector austerity, combined a policy of deficit cuts with one of tax cuts, and made a moral case for saying “no.” A political leader who does the same today is likely to find an electorate more inclined to respond “yes” than he or she expects. {1}

The point, I believe, is that in the current climate of “yes” in Washington D.C., we could use a little “no”. In the event of a natural disasters, there will always be “unprecedented” disasters in a land mass as large as America, “yes” ingratiates the president to the people of the area, the media, the nation, and history, but it is also “yes” that ends up contributing to the national debt, the idea that the federal government is a parent that should clean up the messes of her children, and it discourages smaller scale charity and communities seeing themselves through a disaster of this sort.

“Yes” also lends itself to the already massive egos of those who will sit in our most prestigious seat of representation, and it leads them to believe they can invent “New Coke” formulas, until we’re swirling around the drain in it. These massive egos can’t withstand one commentator saying negative things about them, so they start saying “yes” to everything and everyone before them, because “yes” doesn’t have the political consequences of “no”. Saying no to Congressmen and Senators can bruise egos and cause negative sentiments and statements; saying no to Governors who ask for state aid will lead to political fallout in the media as every story on that tragedy of the day would be accompanied by their “no”; telling a woman that asks for a car in a town hall debate the meaning of the word no, and telling her exactly what time of the day it is, would lead to utter devastation for that candidate’s campaign. Why would a politician, in today’s media cycle, say no and expound on that by saying that’s not the federal government’s role, and refrain from engaging in photo ops that might encourage Americans to believe that it is the government’s role? By saying no, a politician puts his or her nose out, and it takes courage and humility for a politician to risk everything by denying a power grab in this sense. While Coolidge did not face the 24-7 news cycle modern politicians do, a decent search of his history will reveal that his “no” policies did face a relatively intense amount of scrutiny, and he continued to say “no” throughout.

It would probably be a fool’s errand to try and find another person in our current political climate who has the temerity and resolve to say no as often as Coolidge did. The nation has stated that they would much rather live in the fairy tale land of yes, even if that means that the New Coke ideas lead to greater complexities, long-term consequences, and probable economic turmoil. The greater question, that appears to be approaching closer every day, is not whether a “a great refrainer” is a better president than one who believes the nation can “yes” their way out of every problem, but if the nation will ever be ready for such an answer without the assistance of a cataclysmic economic incident that affects them directly.

Calvin Coolidge’s obituary states that his prestige at the time of his impending third-term* was such “that the leaders of the Republican Party wished to override the tradition* that no President should have a third term.” His response was, “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.” When a “draft Coolidge” movement arose to select him for the GOP ticket, Coolidge said no. When they attempted to override his desire, believing Coolidge’s refusal to run was a shrewd attempt to avoid revealing his ambition, he told them no.  


*Calvin Coolidge ended up serving six years, as a result of Harding’s death two years into his presidency, so his re-election would not have been a third term, technically.

*In 1928, the idea of a president serving more than two terms was still a tradition, until the 22nd amendment passed to Constitutionally limit a president to serving two terms. This “tradition” began with George Washington refusing to run for a third term, Theodore Roosevelt continued the tradition, initially, before running again, and some suggest Harry Truman could have run for a third term, because the 1947, 22nd amendment only applied to presidents after the then-current one (which was Truman), but Truman was deemed too unpopular to seek a third-term.    




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