Caucuses and primaries and polls, oh my

And they’re off! With yesterday’s Iowa caucuses ushering in the “hot” phase of constant campaigning leading up to the Republican Convention this summer, we may well look with a touch of nostalgia at earlier times when the political circus wasn’t quite so all-pervasive, albeit less open and transparent.

Certainly Calvin Coolidge never had to face a presidential primary. In his day, there may have been some genteel campaigning and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, but the real dealmaking and vote-counting (not to mention vote buying) took place during the national convention, where party bigwigs wheeled and dealed to determine the makeup of the national ticket. If primaries were held at all, such as in the contested 1912 race, when Teddy Roosevelt challenged incumbent president William Howard Taft for the nomination, they were generally non-binding – Taft would have sunk like a stone if the primaries had been binding, but he controlled the convention and was nominated, prompting the Bull Moose Party split from the GOP.

Broader use and acceptance of the primary system only came in the wake of the chaotic 1968 Democratic campaign and convention, bringing more transparency to the nominating process, but also a prolonged political battle. Criticism of the primary system has focused on the non-representativeness of early caucus and primary battlefields, and on the front-loading effect that ensures that the nomination is all but decided before many people in many states have had a chance to influence the selection process. While some proposals have been floated, such as a national primary, they are not without their own flaws, and it’s likely we will be stuck with the present nomination process for the time being.

For Coolidge fans, it’s fun to speculate how well their man would have done if exposed to the selection process as practiced today. In my view, it’s difficult to say – while he did prove adept at “retail politics” on the local and state level, he was obviously not a back-slapping gladhander, and with a national campaign, he probably would have done well to rely on radio, the one medium that allowed him to shine. Apart from that, a lot would have depended on his organization.

Model president?

Call me ignorant, but until a few days back, I had no idea the town of Osawatomie, Kansas, existed. Now that president Obama has spoken there, invoking the spirit of #26, Teddy Roosevelt, I won’t soon forget the place.

While the New York Times was ecstatic about Obama’s attempt to twist the election into a referendum on income inequality and approvingly noted the heavy-handed symbolism of speaking where Roosevelt issued his call for a “new nationalism,” commentators on the conservative side of the spectrum were not amused. Linda Chavez opined that Obama “is no Teddy Roosevelt,” while, more to the point, revisionist Roosevelt scholar Jim Powell writing in Forbes pointed out the similarities in world view: in a nutshell, they are both so-called progressives that actually are backward-looking and actively doing their darndest to halt progress. What has changed since the days of TR is that while the American economy was powerful back then, charging forward on industry and innovation, the economy is stalled today, chafing under red tape and an all-intrusive government.

While it’s probably more exciting to model yourself on the oversized, larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt, it would be wiser for president Obama (or the next president) to model themselves on the admittedly somewhat smaller-than-life Calvin Coolidge. He may not have been a visionary, but visionaries can go wrong in bringing about their large schemes. And TR was undeniably wrong about much of what he set in motion. Coolidge “did the day’s work,” carrying out the unspectacular but productive and liberating work of reducing debt and taxation, and keeping the nation out of wars. On all those fronts, we would do well to have a president who models himself on #30 instead of #26.

Update: here’s an excellent and thoughtful piece by Troy Smith at American Thinker, comparing TR and CC.

Calvin Coolidge – an appreciation

Calvin Coolidge

Reacting to the momentous event of his being sworn in as president following the sudden death of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge deadpanned “I believe I can swing it.” In the minds of his contemporaries, he did indeed swing it, but in the intervening decades, most historians have frowned on the Republican. Several times over the last half-century, the father-son duo of Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. have asked their fellow professors to rank America’s chief executives. These academics always deem Coolidge “below average”–in other words, they think he’s about as accomplished as the dithering Millard Fillmore. Cool Cal didn’t do much better in a 1982 Chicago Tribune poll of 49 “distinguished historians”; they placed him immediately behind Jimmy Carter. In the 1997 Ridings-McIver survey of historians and former politicians, Coolidge came in at number 33, right below Richard Nixon. It may be said that he was unfairly treated by historians almost from the day he left office.

Yet Coolidge deserves better. Continue reading

Captain EO

Gene Healy has an interesting column this week in the Washington Examiner, focusing on presidential abuse of the Executive Order (EO) pen. Apparently, Teddy Roosevelt was an early addict of that Constitution-bending tool, and Healy highlights several other egregious uses by presidents of both parties leading up to the present; he also speculates that president Obama may be tempted to use it more frequently given the makeup of the Congress following the midterm elections.

I assume that Calvin Coolidge also gave in to the temptation of bypassing Congress with one stroke of the pen, although I’d like to think he did so sparely and reluctantly. Perhaps one of my discerning readers knows more?

Coolidge and the 1920s – the last hurrah of the Gilded Age?

The more I begin to read up on the Coolidge era, the more I also see the need to research more deeply into the years and decades preceding it. And my (preliminary) conclusion is that Calvin Coolidge indeed was the last of that breed of presidents who, by virtue of their traditional, narrow constitutional view of the presidency, largely refrained from “embiggening” (to use a Simpsons word) the importance and reach of that office.

With the exception of a few comparatively activist presidents, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln come to mind, that view had been dominant from the inception of the United States. The framers had devoted a lot of discussion to the question of what powers the “chief magistrate” should have, which is only natural as the new nation was about to escape the oppressive rule of the king of England. I’m no constitutional scholar, but if you consult the articles about the president, it is easy to see that an office with the extraordinary powers it has amassed today was far from the framers’ minds.

Continue reading

Presidents Taft and Coolidge

My recent post about portly presidents prompted me to do some thinking and reading about William Howard Taft, the 27th president, and a one-term conservative wedged between the progressive presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Taft deserves more consideration than he has generally received. He is likely to remain the only president to have also served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a lifelong ambition of his that was realized when president Harding named the retired Taft to that post in 1921. Thus, one link between Taft and Coolidge is the fact that it was Taft who swore in Coolidge as president in 1925.

Another link is that Taft and Coolidge, besides the unfortunate Harding, were the last 19th century presidents in the sense that they held a strictly limited view of the constitutional powers of the presidency. Taft was severely criticized, and remains out of favor with historians, for having abandoned the “progressive” Republican stance of his mentor Roosevelt. Coolidge was similarly criticized as a stand-patter who did not use the powers of the presidency to stave off economic collapse and who even was reluctant to engage the federal government in disaster relief.

Taft held Coolidge in high esteem. On June 5, 1927 he wrote to his son shortly before Coolidge made his famous “I Do Not Choose To Run” statement:

“Coolidge amuses me greatly. I think he is a very long-headed politician. I think he has made a very good President. My only criticism of him would be his selection of men, because I don’t think he has good judgment in that regard, and he hasn’t done as well by us in the selection of Judges as  he might, although he has appointed some good ones. Still he would make a great deal better President than Al Smith and his continuance in office would give a stability to our Government and the progress of the country that would be worth a great deal.”

About a year later, and indicative of some uncertainty that apparently still remained about whether or not Coolidge would be open to be drafted by a GOP convention, Taft wrote perceptively:

“Coolidge will not run. I don’t think his wife is in good condition and I don’t think he is, and he does not want to run, and he is a man who ordinarily does not do what he does not want to.”  This may be tinged with a little envy on Taft’s part, in that he had been pushed largely against his will into the presidency, a post he did not enjoy.

This blog will return to the interesting subject of Taft and his presidency at a later date. Meanwhile, here is one photograph showing Chief Justice Taft and Calvin Coolidge together (with Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles). Notably, the always hefty Taft was off his peak weight in his Supreme Court years. Psychologically versed historians have linked the ups and downs of Taft’s weight to his enjoyment of the various high offices he held, with overeating compensating for the pressures and disappointments of his presidency.

William Howard Taft, Mexican president Calles, and Calvin Coolidge