In January 2015, the Republican Party assumed its largest congressional majorities since 1929. Furthermore, the Republican Party expanded on gains at the state level in terms of governorships and legislatures, attaining a dominance not seen since 1920. As pithily noted by American scholar Josh Zeitz, celebrating such dominance might be short-lived as the “the last time republicans had a majority this huge, they lost it.” Republican victories in the 1920s marked the party’s peak -- and the “high tide of conservatism” –- because the ensuing Great Depression purportedly discredited laissez faire economic policy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal put Republican conservatism on the defensive for a generation. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan revived conservatism in the latter half of the twentieth century, but by then, conservatives had come to peace with progressive liberalism’s endeavors. More lamentably, Reagan’s would be heirs would go on to embrace “big government conservatism” and all the hazards therein. The Great Recession of 2008 vaulted Barack Obama, a charismatic liberal, into the White House and, for a moment, the second eclipse of conservatism seemed imminent (mistakenly). However, like Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson before him, Obama overreached and conservatives now appear poised for a comeback. The breadth and depth of the conservative resurgence is astonishing; it is almost as if voters are determined to pick up where they left off in 1928.
Herbert Hoover was responsible for the demise of the Republican Party after 1928, but only because Calvin Coolidge declined to run for another term.
Coolidge has been an unacceptably underappreciated president and the recent revisiting of his legacy was overdue.
Most notably, American scholar Amity Shlaes has characterized Coolidge as a “rare kind of hero: a minimalist president.” The praise provides a healthy contrast to the narcissism of the current occupant and his endless appetite to insert the government into every aspect of a citizen’s life. However, a more timely analogy is provided by another American scholar, Charles Johnson, one worth quoting in full:
Imagine a country in which strikes by public-sector unions occupied the public square; where, after nearly a decade of military adventurism, foreign policy wandered aimlessly as America disentangled itself from wars abroad and a potential civil war on its southern border; where racial and ethnic groups jostled for political influence; where a war on illicit substances led to violence in its cities; where technology was dramatically changing how mankind communicated and moved about — and where the educated harbored increasing contempt for the philosophic underpinnings of our Republic.
You might say that such a world looks a lot like our own — except that it [isn’t]. [Emphasis added]
The passage reminds the reader the turbulence observed in the modern day is not new and the opportunity for the tranquility and prosperity experienced in the Roaring Twenties is all very possible once again.
One Legacy, Three Possibilities
Republican presidential nominee Warren G. Harding selected Coolidge as his running mate in 1920 after the latter made his mark nationally in 1919 after breaking a Boston police strike by bringing in the National Guard. Governor Coolidge famously declared, “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”
When President Harding died in 1923, Coolidge assumed the presidency and upheld his predecessor’s agenda:
- lowering income tax rates,
- lowering the national debt, and
- reducing immigration.
The first had been a longtime project of the progressive movement and was finally instituted in 1913; America’s subsequent entry into the First World War four years later ensured that this new established levy’s rates increased substantially and that the second rose markedly. Coolidge presided over a reduction in both tax rates and the national debt and the economy subsequently boomed.
In 1924, he signed an immigration act drastically decreasing the number of immigrants permitted to come from southern and eastern Europe and Asia. Restricting immigration was hardly taboo and later that year the voters re-elected Coolidge in a landslide.
When Coolidge departed office in 1929, he left with a well-deserved reputation for honesty, modesty, and devotion to public service.
Conservative voters would do well to establish Coolidge as the basis for evaluating contenders to the 2016 Republican nomination.
No single candidate evokes Coolidge, but several echo his legacy.
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has similarly taken on powerful public sector unions.
Elected in 2010, Walker sought to address the state’s budget deficit in February 2011 by submitting legislation requiring public employees to contribute more to their health care and pension plans and eliminating many long-held collective bargaining rights. The reaction was immediate and vehement. To deny the Republican state senate majority a quorum, all fourteen of the state’s Democratic senators fled to Illinois. Within days, union members and supporters descended upon the state capital and, for some periods of time, physically occupied several government locations. The protests were peaceful and ended up receiving support from around the country, lasting nearly three months, and drawing over 100,000 protesters on a single day at one point. The protests only broke after the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the law.
Walker’s opponents then succeeded in initiating a recall election. Over the next year, he became a target of national liberal, progressive, and pro-union groups. In June 2012, Wisconsin voters handed Walker his second statewide victory in two three years, re-electing him with a margin greater than his initial one. Up for reelection in 2014, Walker once again proved a lightning rod for liberal groups nationwide and, once again, he received a majority of the vote.
In Louisiana, Governor Piyush "Bobby" Jindal has also led the conservative charge against progressive projects – this time, the Affordable Care Act and Common Core education standards.
Elected in 2007, Jindal had been a policy prodigy, demonstrating early on a mastery of health care policy. By age 30, he had been appointed the Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and later the principal adviser to the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services. He served in Congress briefly and then successfully ran for governor in 2007. Jindal focused his first term on ethics reform, natural disaster preparedness, and tax reduction. He badly fumbled his national debut in giving the Republican response to the State of the Union, but he was considered an attractive vice-presidential possibility in the next election.
Re-elected by a sizable majority in 2011, Jindal has been at the forefront of promoting and identifying Republican alternatives to the Affordable Care Act. In April 2014, Jindal unveiled his own alternative proposal, reflecting both conservative priorities as well as gubernatorial prerogatives. While vehemently critical of the Affordable Care Act, Jindal’s plan retained several provisions, such as required protection for individuals with pre-existing conditions and establishing high-risk pools for individuals with chronic conditions. Nevertheless, Jindal proposed repealing the Act in its entirety, permitting each state to craft its own exchange, replacing Medicaid with a block grant program, permitting cross-state sale of policies, allowing small businesses to pool together, and facilitating the portability of policies between jobs. Jindal’s proposal has not yet gained traction, but its submission underscores his broader intent to ensure conservatives present an alternative, rather than simply opposing the status quo. Lastly, Jindal has maintained pressure on Republican officeholders who may be prepared to compromise by offering a “cheaper” version.
Initially supportive of Common Core educational standards, Jindal has reversed course, citing concerns about the alignment of state curriculum on federal terms. To this end, Louisiana has sued the Obama Administration, alleging the Race to the Top initiative masks an effort to compel states to use federal standards and tests. Jindal has tangled with the federal government previously over charter schools and the corresponding successes demonstrate his judgment is better.
In Washington, Texas Senator Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz has waged the conservative fight against the Affordable Care Act inside Congress, and, as of late, he has become a prominent voice on the immigration debate.
Elected in 2012, Cruz had been a nationally recognized litigator and a former Solicitor General for Texas. Cruz defeated the establishment candidate to secure the Republican nomination and then went on to win the Senate election handily. Cruz allied himself with other firebrand freshmen and rapidly established himself as a tenacious opponent of the Obama Administration as well as some of his conference leadership from time to time. Cruz even helped engineer another government shutdown in 2013 over the latter’s wishes. Fears of an electoral backlash proved exaggerated, however, when Republicans finally won the Senate in the subsequent 2014 mid-term elections, bringing in needed allies for Cruz.
On immigration, President Obama had long been toying with issuing an executive order granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and the Republican triumph in 2014 helped persuade him. Conspicuously bypassing Congress, Obama essentially sought to undermine the new Republican majority by dramatically baiting it with an issue that has publically divided the party. Cruz, the representative of a border state, has been consistently critical of the administration’s lax approach to border security and permissive stance toward illegal immigration. Fortunately, Cruz the strict constructionist has been undeterred by his conference leadership and he has been unyielding in denouncing the president’s action as unconstitutional. (Cruz has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and while his record is just above .500, that performance is still markedly better than that of the Obama Administration.) Cruz has only been marginally successful; in December 2014, Cruz and allies finally secured a vote on the executive order, only to have half of his party conference vote against him. Ultimately, Cruz has had to contend with the Administration as well as his ostensible colleagues in the conference. However, as the new Congress has proven, the conference is increasingly aligned with him.
“What we can do is recreate [him] in the aggregate.” Billy Beane, Moneyball
Each is an imperfect successor to Coolidge. Walker has been governor only since 2011, Jindal has failed to meet initial expectations, and Cruz is a polarizing figure.
In combination, however, they become very attractive.
While Election Day is more than eighteen months away, Walker is already considered a top tier contender and continues to build momentum daily. Jindal has failed to make headway, but his experience, intelligence, and diligence again position him as an ideal vice-presidential candidate. Lastly, Cruz will be formidable but, 2008 aside, U.S. Senators are rarely successfully in moving from Capitol Hill to the White House and his talents would be better deployed in the congressional trenches. (If former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid achieved anything, it’s proving that congressional leaders do not have to care about being divisive to be effective.)
Since the tragedy of September 11 -- and the end of the Cold War -- the United States has postponed the day in which the excesses of progressivism are finally discarded. Ambitions of Leviathan led Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson to overreach, but their legacies were never completely overturned. The consequence of Coolidge’s exceedingly rare humility was a path paved for successors who would dismantle the Founding Fathers’ boundaries on the executive and the federal government. The edifice of big government will not be torn down overnight, but it will never occur if the demolition crew is never assembled.
If conservatives lead the country in electing a triumvirate of President Walker, Vice-President Jindal, and Senate Majority Leader Cruz in November 2016, then the country could finally be positioned to pick up where Coolidge left off in 1929.
“Forget Reagan — Could Scott Walker Be the Next Calvin Coolidge?” by Garland S. Tucker III, March 13, 2015, National Review