The President Who Shrank Government
Course DescriptionIs it possible to make government smaller? Few think so today. Few thought so almost a century ago, following WWI. But one man proved them wrong, our 30th President, Calvin Coolidge (1923 -1929). Acclaimed historian Amity Shlaes explains how Coolidge did more by doing less and why his governing style might just be the approach we need now.
Taught ByAmity Shlaes
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That's what Americans demand of their presidents these days. A real president, Democrat or Republican, knows how to use "the office." A real president makes things happen. Or so the conventional wisdom.
But, actually, thereís another model. A president can succeed through inaction, by doing as little as possible. One such president was Calvin Coolidge. From the time he took office in 1923 to the time he left in 1929, Coolidge served a philosophy that was simple and powerful: Donít Do. Coolidge was our great refrainer.
The leadership style matched the personal style. Coolidge did not waste words, hence his nickname "Silent Cal." He did not grandstand. For these quiet ways, the thirtieth president absorbed much abuse. A Washington socialite, Alice Longworth, said that Coolidge looked like he had been weaned on a pickle.
Coolidge cut a sharp contrast to Aliceís father, Theodore Roosevelt, who had served a decade and a half earlier. And what a contrast Coolidge provided with another Roosevelt, Franklin, who came just a few years later.
The Refrainer is worth getting to know because he got the kind of results men of action long for today -- especially economic results. Low unemployment, often well below five percent. Low taxes. Higher wages. Fewer strikes. New technology for the masses Ė a new car, or a phone, or a radio. And most remarkable of all, a shrinking federal budget. If you remember just one fact about Coolidgeís presidency, let it be this: Coolidge left the federal budget lower than he had found it.
How did Coolidge do it?
First he resisted taking unnecessary action himself. Second, he imposed the same discipline on Congress. That wasnít easy. In the early 20ís, the Progressive movement, whose impulse was then as now to do something, was on the march. Progressive plans included more aid for agriculture, encouraging unions, increasing taxes, and nationalizing important industries, such as railroads and utilities.
Coolidge blocked the Progressives, and thereby blocked their expansion of government. He vetoed farm subsidies twice, even though he personally came from an area of poor farmers, rural Vermont. Coolidge was sympathetic to the farmers, but helping them wasnít the governmentís function.
Coolidge also vetoed aggressive versions of the great entitlement proposal of his day, an entitlement that would have expanded the budget by billions, sharply higher pensions for veterans. And, he blocked the rise of militant labor unions wherever and whenever he could. This habit he had begun while still governor of Massachusetts.
Coolidge made especially good use of the pocket veto, the ability of the President to veto a bill by simply not returning it to Congress. Coolidge used the pocket veto 30 times, an historically high rate. "It is much more important to kill bad bills," he said, "than to pass good ones."
The legislation Coolidge did endorse was designed to meet the same minimalist end: restrain the government. Together with his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, Coolidge pushed through lower taxes. Journalists joked that the two were so laconic that "they conversed in pauses." But these witticisms obscure their significant achievement. Coolidge and Mellon lowered the top tax rate to 25%. Their goal was to shrink the public sector, so that the private sector might expand. And the policy worked.
The final example of the Great Refrainerís philosophy involves political sacrifice. The Progressives won 17% of the vote in 1924, almost as much as Ross Perot in 1992, but Coolidge won the presidential election with more votes than the Democrats and Progressives combined. So everyone, including the Republican Party, thought Coolidge would surely run a second time in 1928. Yet he declined. Typical of Coolidge, he thought he had done enough.
Yes itís possible to criticize Coolidge. As much as he tried to avoid it, Coolidge in the end signed bills that he would have preferred not to. And the President showed a misguided penchant for protectionism, never a sound economic policy. Some suggest that Coolidge was responsible for the stock market crash and the decade-long Depression that followed after he left office. But my own research for my Coolidge biography, Coolidge, suggests that claim is inaccurate. Indeed, researching another book, The Forgotten Man, I found evidence that too much action by Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt put the Great in the Great Depression.
It seems ironic that a man of such personal modesty presided over the era known as the Roaring Twenties. But that was the paradox: Coolidge was a scrooge who begat plenty.
Perhaps the day has come for a new politician to follow the Great Refrainerís guiding rule. Where others do, donít. And if you have to do, do less.
Iím Amity Shlaes of the George W. Bush Presidential Center for Prager University.