Tarring the Twenties?

In the third and final presidential debate, president Obama had a good laugh at Mitt Romney’s expense when he pointed out that while it may be true that the U.S. Navy is poised to have the smallest fleet size since 1914, the U.S. “also has less horses and bajonets.” Never mind that the U.S. has to project its power globally today, relying on the Navy for much of that job. In another scripted quip, the president stated that many of Romney’s foreign policy concepts recalled the 1980s, just as his social policy concepts were a throwback to the 1950s and his economic policies to the 1920s.

Fans of Calvin Coolidge are justly proud of his (as well as his predecessor Warren Harding’s, and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s) economic record during the 1920s, and I’m pleased to direct readers’ attention to a fine retort by Amity Shlaes in her Bloomberg column, where she gives a point-by-point rebuttal to the president’s attempt to tar the Twenties. I suppose the 1950s and 1980s will have to find their own defenders!

The Ryan pick

“The beginning of good government is in good nominations.” — Calvin Coolidge, August 15, 1930

As I write this, the political scene as well as the web have already been abuzz for a while with the now-confirmed selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate. As recently as yesterday, I had read about the choice being between “mild” (read safe) and “spicy” (read transformative yet risky) candidates. Paul Ryan definitely falls into the latter camp. Still, I feel that conservatives, or anyone who believes that the fiscal imbalance is the most pressing issue today and tomorrow, this is an excellent choice. While it will undoubtedly invite low blows and personal attacks from the other side (remember that Ryan has already been shown pushing an elderly lady in a wheelchair off a cliff in a political ad), it will also focus the debate on the alternative paths into the nation’s future. To my mind, there is an echo of Calvin Coolidge in Ryan’s single-minded focus on the budget even though most, if not all, the entitlement programs in Ryan’s crosshairs were not even in existence in Coolidge’s day. Another, perhaps a little fainter, echo is in the earnest yet friendly demeanor and personality of Paul Ryan, his integrity and fair-mindedness. Mitt Romney’s pronouncements on the budget have perhaps not always been as clear as some conservatives would have wished; the Ryan pick is his most unequivocal and ringing statement yet that he intends to put the task of taming the budget at front and center of his administration.

Paul Ryan is a fantastic pick from the perspective of governing. I fully expect him to also be an asset in the campaign, as he will energize the conservatives in the party while offering a reason to Independents and Libertarians to vote Republican. As Rich Lowry wrote in the National Review, Ryan is an explainer and persuader. I am particularly heartened by his long association with the late Jack Kemp, a happy warrior if ever there was one. I believe Ryan has some of Kemp’s (and Reagan’s) inclusiveness, of being able to reach out to the other side while appealing to the core of the faithful. To the many millions of Americans who are uneasy about the economic future and direction of the country, he will make a convincing appeal that Washington can make a difference – by living within its means and getting out of the way of entrepeneurs and small business. Someone said that elections are either a referendum on the job performance of the incumbent, or a choice. This election will be both, now that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan offer a clear choice for the future.

What’s in a gaffe?

Two days into his European tour, GOP candidate-in-waiting Mitt Romney is probably wishing he’d remembered Calvin Coolidge’s adage that “I have never been hurt by anything I didn’t say.” The trip, intended to shore up Romney’s foreign affairs credentials, was quickly overshadowed, first by comments by an unnamed Romney campaign staffer about the specialness of the Anglo-Saxon bond between the United States and the United Kingdom, and second, by undiplomatic remarks Romney himself made with regard to London and its preparations and preparedness for the Olympic Games. The first statement was quickly disavowed by Romney, even though it did not contain anything untoward or incendiary, unless you accept the outlandish claim that the term “Anglo-Saxon” itself is in some way tainted or politically incorrect. The second statement was a gaffe only in the Michael Kinsley sense that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” And in fact, nothing that Romney said was wrong, it merely was undiplomatic – but then, he is no diplomat.

Clearly, the media are quick to pounce on anything remotely maladroit out of Romney’s mouth, attempting to repeat what happened in 1968 when the elder Romney was brought down by a careless albeit honest statement about having been “brainwashed” on the Vietnam War. As John Avlon points out in a post at The Daily Beast, it was the buttoned-down campaign of Richard Nixon that prevailed that year. Today, contrary to Nixon’s instincts and Coolidge’s tenet, there is an insatiable hunger for statements, for one-liners, for quips, anything to feed the social media frenzy. I’m not convinced that Avlon’s advice to Romney – to be more accessible, and less distrustful of the media – is the right conclusion to draw. My own take-home message for Mitt Romney would be to write down Coolidge’s little nugget of wisdom and keep it in his pocket for easy reference at all times for today, far more than in Coolidge’s or Nixon’s day, any public utterance will be instantly fed into the web and be around for years and years, with no control over misinterpretation or outright fabrication. Better be buttoned-down than sorry.

Would Mitt Romney be a president in the Coolidge mold? And if so, would that be a bad thing?

In a recent American Prospect piece, Jamelle Bouie makes the case that Mitt Romney, far from returning to any moderate-leaning instincts he may once have possessed, will, if elected, turn out to be a willing tool of a resurgent ultra-conservative Republican Party. While he makes it clear that he sees this as a dire scenario, some of us are downright hopeful when he quotes Romney saying, as he did in an April 13 speech at the NRA, that “instead of expanding the government, I will shrink it. Instead of raising taxes, I will cut them. Instead of adding regulations, I will scale them back.”

Echoing president Obama’s skewed depiction of the Republican agenda as “social darwinism,” Bouie contends: “The modern Republican Party isn’t trying to build a fairer or more equitable society, and it doesn’t care for the interests of low- or middle-income Americans. To borrow from Paul Ryan, it stands for the “makers” against the “takers.” It aims to gut government and give the spoils to the rich. In a sense, it seeks to revive the age of Calvin Coolidge, when government was small, inequality high, and the economy an exclusive playground for the wealthiest and most powerful Americans. If Mitt Romney is elected, the GOP will have a president who shares that vision.”

Besides the overblown and ridiculous claim that the GOP is merely a tool for “the rich,” I submit this also is a remarkably one-sided characterization of the Coolidge years. By most unbiased accounts, the Coolidge 20s were a period of rapid and, more importantly, broad-based economic growth, while the Mellon-Coolidge taxation regime lowered taxes for all, and disproportionately for the lower rungs of society. It is true that in Coolidge‘s day there were fewer “takers,” or recipients of redistributed wealth, and I for one would argue that the nation was better for it.We can only hope that Mitt Romney, once he is duly nominated and hopefully elected -if possible in tandem with a Republican House and Senate- will return Calvin Coolidge‘s picture to its rightful place on the White House wall and to Coolidge‘s nostrums in dealing with the “prairie fire of debt” he has already identified as the nation’s number one problem.

Weakest front-runner ever?

Newt Gingrich opined recently that Mitt Romney was about the weakest front-runner since Leonard Wood. Leaving aside the question of what that, if true, says about Newt’s campaign, it piqued my interest – just who was Leonard Wood? Continue reading

It’s still the economy, stupid!

I hope my readers will forgive me if I digress just a little (again!) from Calvin Coolidge in order to remark on the current race for the GOP nomination.

Some commentators have opined that Mitt Romney may be in trouble to the extent that economic numbers start looking better. With some reason, they make the case that his candidacy is built largely on his strength on the economic front – the ideal CEO fixer-upper for an economy that’s been in the doldrums for some years now. And presto! as soon as some jobs numbers tick upwards, not only does president Obama suddenly look a lot less vincible (is that a word? probably not), but social conservative dreamboat and vest model Rick Santorum is looking a lot better all of a sudden.

I think that’s all foolishness, and if Romney is smart (he’s supposed to be), he’ll still make the case that one swallow does not a summer make, and that, regardless of one or more positive quarter, the direction of the economy is still wrong, will continue to slide in the wrong, statist direction under Obama, and needs to be turned around. He may need to throw a bone or two to social conservatives, but he should be stressing that America can’t afford to dawdle away precious time on questionable social issue battles while a tide of red ink and unrestrained big government spending are still steadily rising, the president’s sleight-of-hand budget proposals notwithstanding.

Calvin Coolidge was basically a one-issue president – the issue being a laser-like focus on budget discipline and on cutting the debilitating debt incurred during WWI. Since not everyone appears to have grasped that today’s debt crisis is every bit as severe as that of the early 1920s, Gov. Romney will need to summon more clarity and conviction on this issue in order to make his point clearly understood. This will serve him well against a president who does not have an economic plan that goes beyond tax-and-spend.

Wealth and the presidency

A Romney supporter

The media, helped by his friendly rivals, have made Mitt Romney’s wealth an issue in the campaign for the GOP nomination – and doubtless president Obama will continue to bring it up if and when he faces Romney in the fall. There is some entertainment value in ranking the presidents for their personal wealth although it seems a stretch to even compare the land and slaveholding-based wealth of a George Washington, a Thomas Jefferson or an Andrew Jackson with the entrepeneurial wealth of a Herbert Hoover or the inherited wealth of the Kennedys and Roosevelts.The varying degrees of success in the presidency that these varied men experienced testifies that wealth is not a prerequisite for a successful presidency – nor is it a hindrance.

One thing is for certain – Calvin Coolidge will never be ranked among the rich presidents; ironically, perhaps, for a man still erroneously tarred with the image of crass materialism. I’ve always found it particularly endearing that Coolidge lived modestly though comfortably, and after his tenure in the White House returned at first to the old duplex in a residential street in Northampton where his family had lived before the move to Washington. Coolidge had respect, though not undue awe, for wealth – he noted that

“Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberty, the widening of culture.”

He dealt as easily with very wealthy men like Andrew Mellon, Henry Ford, or William Randolph Hearst as he did with the man or woman in the street. It is sheer conjecture, but I assume he would converse easily with Gov. Romney (after all, they both served as Governors of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) and would respect his accomplishments in the private sector.

Calvin Coolidge in his political life rose above class antagonisms. He did not pit banker against working man, having sympathy and respect for both. It is to be hoped that tired clichés of class warfare will not play a part in the election campaigns of this year – but that may be an unrealistic hope. Conversely, I hope that Gov. Romney, if he is the nominee, will forcefully stand for an economic approach that lifts all boats by a rising tide of prosperity – just as the roaring 20s did.

Image by Charles Ommanney, for Newsweek.

Romney’s Mellon moment?

Once in a while I ask the Coolidge-minded reader of this blog to forgive me for commenting on contemporary politics. While the current race (slog is more like it) for the Republican nomination has been a topic before, it was mostly me cheerleading for my dream candidate Mitch Daniels, who turned out to be a non-candidate. His current book, Keeping the Republic, is still highly recommended.

At present, while flavor-of-the-day favorites come and go, Mitt Romney marches on solidly yet somewhat stolidly. And while his penchant for flip-flopping has not endeared him to many, every once in a while he says something that makes me like him (and I really do want to like him – above all, he seems like a decent guy, which is not a bad basic for a candidate or indeed any human being). One such occasion was when he faced down a leftist heckler by stating, correctly and forcefully, “Corporations are people.” And now, he’s done it again – telling the truth about home ownership and foreclosures, even if this is unpopular – or perhaps, as the article suggests in jest, he wanted to give his candidacy some legitimacy by taking just one single unpopular position. Predictably, he immediately got slammed by a Democatic Party ad.

It is a bit of a stretch, but statements like Romney’s “let it run its course” bring to mind the statement attributed to Andrew Mellon, long-serving Treasury Secretary under presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (some say they served under him) re the Great Depression: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system.” This quote is from Hoover’s memoirs, so they probably and self-servingly overstate Mellon’s point, but it probably does describe Mellon’s view correctly, namely, to let the slump run its course without statist meddling. Hoover, and FDR, veered far from that and today some economists are coming around to the idea that all their meddling and all their cajoling and bashing of business not only did not help end the Depression but may well have needlessly prolonged it. In my view, Romney is likewise correct in implying that there will ultimately be less pain for “underwater” homeowners if corrections run their course rather than being meddled with by the state for populist reasons.

Personality and Politics

Andrew Romano has an interesting story in Newsweek that discusses the role and influence of personality on politics and electability, focusing on the candidacy of Mitt Romney.

Romano makes the point that while Romney, on paper, is a most attractive, even ideal candidate, both nature (in the form of personality disposition) and nurture (in the form of the Romney family’s experience with national politics at the time Romney’s father George was prominent) are working against him. The explanation of his difficulties in connecting with people may be found in personality psychology:

Political psychologist (and sometime Congressional candidate challenging Michelle Bachmann) Aubrey Immelman, who has developed a “Personal Electability Index,” unequivocally states that Romney will never win the Presidency, because modern voters tend to punish candidates who are introverted and conscientious – and while Romney isn’t particularly introverted (although wince-inducingly awkward in unscripted individual encounters), he has all the characteristics of the conscientious type: polite, proper, diligent, detail-oriented, and, above all, rational rather than emotional.

Immelman interestingly points out that these are all qualities that used to be valuable in political candidates well up to the mid-20th-century, so that men like Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and, yes, Calvin Coolidge connected with voters because (not in spite) of them. He argues that the TV era has placed a premium on the public persuasion aspects of politics; yet on TV, conscientious people come across as stiff and calculating, lacking the emotional appeal of their more extraverted and impulsive opponents. Notwithstanding either the qualities or lack thereof of Mitt Romney or the changes that have taken place in the nominating process, I feel it does not bode well for the system when the more shallow, marketing-oriented aspects of a candidate or president are valued more highly than their capacity for rational thought, and it is just one more reason why a “Coolidge for today” would have to act quite differently from the original in terms of both content and presentation.

As blog reader Jim Cooke points out, Romney and Coolidge share the distinction of having been Governors of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There are big distinctions between them, however – as Romano points out in his article, Romney has been on a losing streak in nearly all political contests he’s been in so far – Coolidge had an extraordinary string of political wins, capped, of course, by winning the Presidency. And Coolidge, in dealing with people high and low, always appeared to genuinely care for them, an impression that rightly or wrongly you do not get when observing Romney’s interactions.

Update: Additional (Mormon) take on this by Joanna Brooks at http://www.religiondispatches.org