When Mitt Romney takes the podium Thursday night to be his party’s nominee for the presidency, he would do well to remember the words of Calvin Coolidge, the last Republican governor of Massachusetts to be so honored. He might find a sympathetic soul, with much to teach him.
The two temperamentally conservative, politically progressive governors weren’t always GOP darlings—or even its first choices. Former vice president Coolidge, after a tumultuous year as president following the sudden death of Warren G. Harding in August 1923, was nearly dumped in favor of Henry Ford. Romney, whose previous campaign failed four years ago, limped to the nomination after a grueling slog to win the requisite delegates. The introverted governors share the status of political outsider: Coolidge with his Vermont taciturnity and silence, Romney with his Mormon, Midwest politeness. While Romney’s opponents made much of his wealth, Coolidge’s foes made much of the two-family home he rented. Neither man was well acquainted with the Beacon Hill politics, the booze-fueled backroom deals of which often excluded the teetotaling governors.
Harding and Coolidge ran in 1920 promising “a return to normalcy,” but events—low-level corruption, economic depression, and Harding’s death—conspired to keep that normalcy from them. The U.S. Senate was in open revolt against Coolidge, who possessed none of the charms of the affable Harding (a former U.S. senator). Coolidge’s nomination speech then, in August 15, 1924, was to set the tone for his presidency and ultimately for his party. He had little doubt that if a party were “founded upon a great moral principle and directed with scrupulous regard for its integrity, it cannot fail to sweep onward and upward, advancing always steadily and surely, a mighty constructive force, a glorious bearer of progress.” This belief came from Coolidge’s deeper view that man possessed a “spiritual nature.” “Touch it [politically], and it must respond as the magnet to the pole.” If you make moral arguments, not only will you win; you will be worthy. The Republicans assembled in Tampa this week understand this need for a moral claim, which explains why they adopted “We Built This” as the convention’s theme.
Coolidge also emphasized the ideal of the common good. “A true citizen of a real Republic can not exist as a segregated, unattached fragment of selfishness,” he told the delegates, “but must live as a constituent part of the whole of society in which he can secure his own welfare only as he secures the welfare of his fellow men.” In other words, we’re all in this together. Promoting the general welfare—and not the selfish interests of a few—meant promoting American principles, but this didn’t mean embracing statism. In language that sounds much like Romney on the campaign trail, Coolidge announced his own first principles:
I believe in the American Constitution. I favor the American system of individual enterprise, and I am opposed to any general extension of Government ownership and control. I believe not only in advocating economy in public expenditure, but in its practical application and actual accomplishment.
With the newly created Budget Bureau, he set about putting the country’s fiscal house in order and became the last president actually to pay down the debt, shrinking the government.
He even confessed a “sort of obsession” with government economy. “I regard a good budget as among the noblest monuments of virtue,” he explained in words that could have been said by Paul Ryan. “We can only be relieved of our present private and public burdens by refraining from private and public extravagance.” Americans should reject expenses for which there is “no commensurate return.” Taxes, contrary to what Senate majority leader Harry Reid has argued, are “not a voluntary contribution. . . . They are a stern necessity.” But when the government spends less, “it grants everybody a life pension,” which they can use “to raise the standard of existence.” Taxing less “increases the value of everybody’s property and raises the scale of everybody’s wages.” Taxing corporations would simply see them pass those costs on to everyday people. The tax that is “theoretically best” interferes with business least.
While Coolidge’s critics ahistorically claim that he was a pawn of Wall Street, he—and his secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon—actually made the tax code far more progressive, while still reducing taxes for everyone and achieving the desired economic growth. “Taxes take from everyone a part of his earnings, and force everyone to work for a certain part of his time for the government,” Coolidge said. Take less from them and they will do more. Economic growth would average 7 percent a year over the course of Coolidge’s first full term. And while in Coolidge’s day “every student knows that excessive high rates defeat their own purpose,” President Obama has yet to learn what Coolidge’s “government of common sense” taught. “Whatever cry the demagogue may make about his ability to tax the rich, at the end of the year it will always be found that the people as a whole have paid the taxes.” Good taxation follows “the straight path of justice” by only taking what the government needs and no more.
Romney should follow Coolidge’s lead when it comes to corruption and cronyism as well: “no individual . . . may expect any governmental favors for party assistance. Whatever anyone gives must be given for the common good, or not at all.” In other words, no more Solyndras or bailouts.
Most of all, Coolidge had a sharp sense of the limits of what government could achieve. “We harbor no delusions about securing perfection. We know that mankind is finite,” he warned his fellow Republicans. This is a particularly important lesson for Romney, whose Mr. Fix-It attitude has at times recalled Herbert Hoover, to whom Coolidge referred dismissively as a “Wonder Boy.” There may be some problems that Romney-Ryan cannot fix.
As Coolidge said, “The chief business of the American people is business,” and who better to lead them than a man who grew hundreds of businesses? The challenge for Romney is to understand what Coolidge said later in the same speech: that Americans “make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. . . . The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.” Leading a nation of idealists will require that Romney, like Coolidge before him, come out of his shell. Let’s hope his speech tonight is the first step.