Eisenhower, Coolidge, Daniels – beloved reluctant candidates?

In what has been called “Broder’s Law,” the late David Broder stated that anyone who is prepared to do what you have to do to become president shouldn’t be allowed to be president. And truly, in an ideal world, ability, not ambition, should be the decisive factor in determining who should govern.

These days more so than in the past, however, it seems that politicians have to engage in near-constant campaigning to attain and then keep public office. And while we the voters realize and have come to expect this, we also regret and despise it; we yearn for the candidate who is reluctant, ideally someone who already has made their mark in a non-political field, has accomplished something and could enjoy the fruits of his or her success, and only through the great clamor of the man in the street is talked into running for office.

Yes, we like to see some reluctance on the part of politicians, as described well by Irving Berlin in the song “They Like Ike” from the musical “Call Me Madam”, the song that became something of a campaign song for Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“They like Ike, and Ike is good on a mike;

they like Ike, but Ike says he don’t wanna.”

“That makes Ike they kind of fella they like,

and what’s more, they seem to think he’s gonna.”

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The missing hero?

My favorite putative GOP presidential candidate, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels slightly disappointed me the other day… when asked, in the 5th segment of his UncommonKnowledge interview, about his heroes in U.S. history, he failed to name Calvin Coolidge. He also did not name the two presidents he served, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

He DID name George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt (“with reservations”) and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

While I wouldn’t presume to edit that list, I certainly think Coolidge is a fine role model, if not a hero, to any responsible candidate. And I am a little nonplussed that a military theme does appear to run through that list of heroes.

Peggy Noonan on Daniels-as-Coolidge

Has Peggy Noonan been reading my blog? I suppose it’s just an instance of great minds thinking alike (said he, modestly). At any rate, former Reagan speechwriter, author, and columnist Peggy Noonan does make the Coolidge-Daniels link I ventured recently, singling out recent speeches by governors Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie as particularly important and memorable.

We’ll have to wait and see if all this is mere talk with no substance. But I feel the rising popularity of “tough love” governors such as Daniels, Christie, and now apparently Wisconsin’s Walker may be an indication that a sea change in the direction of more austerity is on its way.

Update: Michael Gerson at the Washington Post also discovers a Coolidge-like coolness about Mitch Daniels 🙂

The charisma of competence

It would be something of an overstatement to say that Calvin Coolidge exuded charisma. He was unprepossessing and unobtrusive, fading into the background of cabinet meetings during the Harding presidency, and while he was a reasonably good speaker (especially on radio, a medium made for him), he was no spellbinder or “great communicator.” At least in part, his rise to the Presidency may be attributed to luck; having made it to the Vice Presidency, much to the annoyance of party bigwigs, they were plotting to get rid of him in time for Harding’s reelection campaign in 1924, and it was his predecessor’s untimely death that made possible the final step up the ladder to the nation’s highest office. Even so, he was by no means a shoo-in for 1924 and had to move fast and decisively to cement his hold onto power.

Once in office, he was able to win over his party and the nation by his personality and his competence – but it is doubtful that he would have been given the chance even to attain that office if not for a string of lucky breaks. While the obsession with outward appearance, i.e. presidential looks and demeanor, may not have been as much of a factor in the 1920s as it is today, people did remark on how much like a president Harding looked, while no one ever said as much about Coolidge. His charisma, or lack of it, alone would never have carried him to the White House, especially as his message of economy and efficiency in government, although appropriate to the times, was not exactly a shining vision to excite and rally the voters.

To segue to the political scene of today, should he decide to run, will Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels be able to win over the party faithful and the nation on the strength of his “charisma of competence,” as George Will charitably described it?

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Mitch Daniels – the Coolidgean candidate?

For a blog that normally focuses on Calvin Coolidge, I have sneaked in a number of mentions of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels lately. I was going to be all defensive about it, but on second thought I don’t think there’s a reason to be.

Because for someone who has been following U.S. politics from afar for more years than I care to recount, Mitch Daniels comes closer than any other prominent politician of either party in recent decades to the Coolidge mold, and that includes Ronald Reagan. In the years following the First World War, when the national debt hit record highs, Coolidge focused laser-like on reducing government spending, using the savings to pay back the debt and to reduce taxes. For numerous reasons, not all of which were of his own doing and some of which are eminently excusable, Reagan cut taxes first, but never seriously got around to cutting spending.The concept was “starve the beast“, but the beast was still getting fatter, as William Niskanen has observed and empirically demonstrated.

Coolidge favored the term “constructive economy”, indicating his intention not merely to make every tax dollar sweat, but also to be more innovative. And indeed, many times a crisis or budget crunch has precipitated creative and innovative ways to get by or even get better results while spending less. I see Gov. Daniels as just the right man for an update of this approach today.

Gov. Daniels appears to be inching closer to declaring his candidacy (and here), even while naming valid obstacles – most important among them his wife’s reservations about the grueling race and the impaired quality of life for himself and his family during, and especially after a successful run. Should he decide not to run, we who see him as ideally qualified, will have to respect that decision. As long as he hasn’t made that decision, I’ll keep hoping…and occasionally using this tiny corner of the world wide interwebs to tout him and his program 😉

Update: excellent speech given by Gov. Daniels at CPAC…love the phrase “morbidly obese government”!


Stay tuned… regular COOLIDGE blogging will resume shortly 🙂

Pecking away at waste and extravagance

I have a sense that after decades of budgetary profligacy, America may be in the mood for more economy and efficiency in government, exemplified by leaders such as Governors Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie who are showing an almost Coolidgean willingness to take on spending excesses.

I haven’t tallied up the numbers and don’t know whether our situation is similar to, or possibly even exceeds, the fiscal calamity America found itself in after World War I caused an almost 20-fold increase in the national debt. In other posts I have begun to report on the efforts by presidents Harding and Coolidge, and their respective Directors of the Budget, to instill a sense of purpose and urgency at all levels of the federal bureaucracy but can’t resist adding a little item on General Lord, second Director of the Budget, taken from the book The Office of Management and Budget and the Presidency, 1921 – 1979, by Larry Berman:

Lord actually checked employees’ desks for excessive use of official stationery, paper clips, and other government supplies. He also engaged in such quaint-sounding ploys as establishing a “Two Per Cent Club” for agency heads who trimmed that amount off their estimates, a “One Per Cent Club” reserved for the less efficient, and the “Loyal Order of Woodpeckers,” whose motto read: “All hail to the Loyal Order of Woodpeckers, whose persistent tapping away at waste will make cheerful music in government offices and workshops the coming year.”

Quaint as this may sound to the author of those lines, I can’t help but feel that it would be nice to hear that tap-tap-tapping sound emanate from government offices today – they sure would have their work cut out for them!

Please see also this more substantial post on the Business Organization of the Government.

Meet the Fi$cy – a new award for fiscal responsibility

I like to think that if Calvin Coolidge were around today, or if this particular award had been around back in the 1920s, the 30th president would have been a shoo-in as a recipient of the Fi$cy Award, intended to honor elected officials who are leading the way in promoting fiscal responsibility and government accountability. But I’m sure Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and particularly Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN) are worthy first-time contemporary recipients. Make sure you check out the Fi$cy website!

And here’s Gov. Daniels’ acceptance speech… I think Coolidge would approve.

Cut defense spending? What Would Coolidge Do?

While the new Congress brings in a group of conservative freshmen (and -women), they seem to remain conflicted as to whether the military should be included in spending cuts of any significance, renewing the tug-of-war between fiscal conservatives and defense hawks. Writing on reason.com last November, Peter Suderman noted that while many conservative individuals and organizations (such as Coolidge fan Sarah Palin, AEI and the Heritage Foundation) stood squarely against military spending cuts,  Ron and Rand Paul, both early advocates for cutting defense, were being joined by other Republican notables such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen.-elect Pat Toomey.

For what it’s worth -and notwithstanding the completely different scenario the U.S. finds itself in today vs. the 1920s- it should be very clear that if Calvin Coolidge were in the White House today, and faced with the present budget crisis, he would not hesitate to cut, squeeze and trim the military budget just like any other part of the bloated federal government.

Here’s an extended quote from his address at the 12th seminannual meeting of the Business Organization of the Government, given January 29th, 1927:

The public debt has a direct connection with the question of military preparedness. To the extent that we are able to reduce our public debt and to eliminate the vast charges of interest thereon, to that extent are we adding to our military preparedness [emphasis added] (…).

(…)Aside from the many and other more important reasons, we should, from a financial standpoint alone, refrain from any gesture which could possibly be construed as militaristic. There are in the nation people who advocate policies which would place us in a militaristic attitude. There are others who beguile themselves with a feeling of absolute safety and preach a doctrine of extreme pacifism. Both of these are dangerous to our continued peace and prosperity. What we need, and all that we need, for national protection is adequate preparedness. (…)

I am for adequate military preparedness. It is a question to which I always give the most serious thought in my recommendations to the Congress in the budget message. As Commander in Chief of the Army and of the Navy, the Chief Executive of this nation has an emphatic responsibility for this phase of our welfare. As a nation we are advocates of peace. Not only should we refrain from any act which might be construed as calling for competition in armament, but rather should we bend our every effort to eliminate forever any such competition. (…) Surely the best interests of all are found in directing to the channels of public welfare moneys which would otherwise be spent without reproductive results.”

Again, it goes without saying that times are vastly different today. The 1920s were the aftermath of the most disastrous military conflagration the world had seen up to that time, most potential rivals and foes were in disastrous shape economically and militarily, and thus calls for disarmament were mostly favorably received by the public.The U.S. faces a much more diverse and robust array of potential rivals, though few actual enemies.

But it is my conviction that Calvin Coolidge would be just as appalled by the iron grip of the “military-industrial complex” (as decried by president Eisenhower in his farewell address) on the nation’s treasury as he would be by the ballooning budget deficit. Given his laser-like focus on constructive economy in government, it is inconceivable that he would leave the military budget untouched. His priorities were clear: budget consolidation first, military spending second. In fact, many years before Eisenhower’s famous remarks, Coolidge expressed his view of the inordinate sway of the military over the budget in a newspaper column on May 11, 1931:

Some years ago careful investigations were made by General Lord, Director of the Budget, in an attempt to stabilize military expenses at about half a billion dollars.  So much opposition arose in the Congress that little progress was made. The Army and Navy now cost about seven hundred and twenty-five millions. Instead of a reduction there has been a rather steady increase in appropriations. The interests involved have become firmly intrenched in Washington.