Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Coolidge v. Davis in the 1924 Presidential Election

This is the longer review that will appear in the IPR Journal. From this, there should be two op-ed pieces-- one focusing on Coolidge, Davis, and LaFollette; the other focusing on a compare/contrast between Coolidge and Reagan.

The High Tide of Conservatism: The Presidential Election of 1924

The consensus on the 1924 presidential election is that it was a conventional campaign with dull candidates. But Garland Tucker brings both to life in The High Tide of Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election. Everyone knows Calvin Coolidge because he won, but John W. Davis was a notable man in his own regard. And the race was noteworthy (if not unique) in that both parties chose conservatives who favored limited government, leading Tucker to the title of his book. 

At least by modern standards, Coolidge and Davis were boring in terms of character; Tucker describes both in glowing terms. There was no scandal in Coolidge's years as president and he was "an icon for those solid American values of honesty, hard work, self-reliance, and thrift...Coolidge was the real thing." (6) Davis was "a man of unimpeachable integrity, immense personal charm, and extraordinary legal ability". And they both ran clean, respectable campaigns.

The general election was not particularly exciting either, since the economy was booming and a popular incumbent was seeking a second term. But the Democratic convention was electric and "the most divisive" in American history: 15 days with nine days of voting and 103 ballots before Davis was chosen (10, 97). 

Of course, with a popular incumbent running for a second term, the result of the GOP convention was a foregone conclusion. But Senator Robert LaFollette's 3rd-party campaign as a Progressive began there—another intriguing piece of the puzzle. He led the Wisconsin delegation to the convention as a "favorite son"—a ceremonial candidacy by one who can’t win. But the state's delegates were "subjected to incessant heckling" and the GOP's continued move away from Progressive principles were catalysts for LaFollette’s run as a Progressive (173). 

LaFollette ran an impressive race, but overcoming the prosperity of the Coolidge economy—especially with a Progressive set of policies—was always a long shot. A more likely scenario was for LaFollette to win enough electoral votes to send the election to the House, but this was too much to accomplish as well. Still, he earned 16% of the popular vote, won his home state, and finished 2nd in 11 states (228). 

LaFollette also made things much more difficult for Davis, siphoning far more votes from him than Coolidge. Comparing Presidential and Congressional vote percentages, about three-quarters of LaFollette's vote would have gone to Davis (237). But in terms of the electoral college, LaFollette's votes seemed to be decisive in only three states. (Tucker provides a helpful appendix with this information.) 

Some of the voter partisanship from a century ago is amazing. Davis dominated in the South, including 97% of the vote in South Carolina. But he earned 10% or less in five states including 8% in California. Overall, Coolidge crushed Davis 54-29%. 

While the final outcome was hardly in doubt, there were significant side issues that led to fraction and finesse. Prohibition, the League of Nations, and farm interests were all prominent, but the KKK was probably the most interesting issue. Davis was "the only candidate who spoke out forcefully against the Klan." (187) Coolidge didn't need to devote much time to oppose it, since his party handled the issue well. But the struggles with racism in the Democrat Party led to a difficult decision between principle and finesse. Progressive LaFollette and all the other Democrats candidates chose finesse. 

The Ebbs and Flows of Political Progressivism

Progressive politics had dominated in the earlier decades of the 20th century—as Progressive ideology had grown in influence since the late-19th century. William Jennings Bryan had been an early political catalyst—most notably through his "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democrat convention in 1896. But Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson brought different versions of Progressivism to prominence, power, and policy. (Tucker describes William Taft as somewhat conservative, but in practice, mostly going along with Progressivism, through his "conscientious enforcement of Roosevelt's reforms" [17].) 

After the Civil War, Democrats dominated the South, but rarely appealed to enough voters to win the White House. The exception was the popular conservative governor of New York, Grover Cleveland, who won twice. But with Bryan's speech, energy for Progressivism broadened appeal for Democrats, eventually culminating in Wilson's victory. The GOP's overall post-war dominance also led to corruption and cronyism—and a subsequent emphasis on reforming government by Roosevelt. 

But then the tide turned. Roosevelt’s influence faded with his death in 1919—and Wilson was quite unpopular by the end of his term in 1920. The country "seemed exhausted by the exhortations of Roosevelt and Wilson for activism, reform, and government intervention." (17) World War I and the Russian Revolution were fresh in the mind of citizens. They were suspicious of Wilson's League of Nations (23). And the economy was in a sharp recession—with unemployment as high as 20% after GDP had shrunk by 17% (25). 

Tucker cites a line by Warren Harding, the GOP victor in 1920: "America's present need is not heroes but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration...not surgery but serenity." (23) All of this set the table for the pendulum to move back toward conservatism in the 1920s, but also helps to explain the potency of LaFollette's campaign. 

John W. Davis

Tucker portrays Davis as a great statesman. As Solicitor General, he fulfilled his office without bias, even when it meant arguing in favor of more expansive government that he personally opposed (121). He spent considerable money out of pocket to support the underfunded embassy in London (127). In returning to the U.S. in 1921, he was broke and decided to return to private law practice to rebuild some wealth (132). He was a potential nominee for the Supreme Court and Tucker opines that Davis would have accepted if it had been offered when he was more financially secure (136-137). 

In terms of his views on political economy, Davis saw himself as a "classic liberal." (279) He later opposed the New Deal (6) and formed the "American Liberty League" to organize more opposition (273-276). He broke with FDR so strongly that he was labeled "Public Enemy #1" inside the White House. He defected to the GOP to endorse Alf Landon in 1936 (276-277) and then Wendell Willkie in 1940 (279).  

Davis' character was so strong that the Democrats chose him to oppose Coolidge based on "confidence in his character rather than of studied agreement with his views." (98) Tucker argues that it was "more a tribute to his ability and personal characteristics than any kind of ideological victory." (101) That said, while Davis' nomination as a conservative can be seen as a fluke, it's still worth noting that there was plenty of room for him in the Democrat party of the time. 

Davis argued 140 cases before the SCOTUS—more than anyone except Lawrence Wallace and perhaps Daniel Webster. His last two cases were his most famous. He successfully opposed the Truman administration's seizure of the steel industry during the Korean War (282). But the second was one of two late blemishes on his public record. He argued for the defendant in Briggs v. Elliott, the South Carolina companion of Brown v. Board of Education (283). Davis argued on the legal and constitutional merits of the position, focusing on states rights (284-289). The other, clearer blemish (not mentioned by Tucker): he served as a character witness for Alger H
iss in 1949.

Coolidge and Reagan

Tucker paints Coolidge as a largely consistent conservative of a limited-government and classical-liberal sort. Still, there were exceptions. In a long quote analyzed by Tucker, Coolidge favored limited government except "protective" tariffs and to "assist the farmers" (217). (Tucker does note that Coolidge vetoed the McNary-Haugen farm bill, subsidizing domestic production to sell overseas, as a "radical intrusion of the federal government" [257].) 

But usually, Coolidge preferred limited government, emphasizing the role of individuals and the private sector, and the ethical and practical limits to government intervention (215). He saw "economy in government as a cardinal virtue." (250) For example, on his last day in office, he vetoed a civil service retirement bill that he saw as profligate (296). He decided not to run for another term in 1928, thinking it too long for one to serve in power (291-292). (Unfortunately, Tucker attempts this to contemporary politics by imagining the contemporary GOP as a party of similar conservatives [306].)

In his foreword for the book, Fred Barnes opens by noting Reagan's respect for Coolidge, replacing Truman's portrait in the White House with Silent Cal's (1). Early in his presidency, Reagan had a Coolidge moment when he fired the striking air-traffic controllers. Coolidge had cracked down on a police strike in Boston when he was governor of Massachusetts in 1919 (1). He had said that "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere." (160) Especially in the wake of concerns about the Russian Revolution, Coolidge's stand caused him to emerge onto the national stage (20).

The two were similar in terms of style and approach. Like Reagan, Coolidge was "a successful and able politician" (5). Like Reagan, Coolidge was effective with public relations and modern technology—then, radio and photography (31, 211, 239, 240). Reagan wrote much of his own material for radio addresses; Coolidge was the last President to write his own speeches (36). 

Tucker argues that Coolidge was better than Teddy Roosevelt in terms of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. "He tended to work intensely, but quietly, on a problem until he became convinced of the correct plan of action and that the time for action was at hand. Then, he acted decisively." (21) Tucker describes Coolidge's approach as: "be cautious, move slowly, consult the law, and then act decisively and articulate it clearly." (160) Similarly, Reagan was known for careful thought and listening to the excellent advisers he had gathered around him. On matters of principles in economics and foreign policy, he was thoughtful but principled and firm. 

Like Reagan (and JFK), Coolidge's most valuable contribution to the history of economic policy is his work on marginal tax rates. He reduced the top rate from 77% to 25%, resulting in greater tax revenues (an early illustration of the Laffer Curve or what Amity Shlaes notes was called "scientific taxation" at the time) and a long period of prosperity (3-4). For example, the Dow Jones increased six-fold from mid-1921 through late 1929 (258).

Tucker notes the debate (among historians) about the economy of the 1920s, ranging from materialistic excesses that supposedly led to the Great Depression—to what Paul Johnson glowingly called "the Last Arcadia", a time of amazing productivity, progress, and income mobility (37). 

But what is apparently debatable among historians is not nearly as debatable among economists. Harding's response to a severe recession in 1920-21 was to reduce spending (by 40%), decrease tax rates, and otherwise allow the economy to adjust on its own. He was the last to deal with a recession through laissez-faire policies. As usual, the recession was sharp and nasty, but short. Coolidge followed by decreasing marginal tax rates more dramatically and reducing the tax rolls by one-third (251-252). 

In 1929 and the decade of economic woes that followed, Hoover and FDR went the opposite direction—with numerous tax increases, increased spending and regulation, laws that forced prices and wages upward rather than allowing them to adjust to the downward adjustments inherent in a recession (260). 

It is somewhat reasonable for non-economists to imagine the Great Depression as an effect of a market-based 1920s cause. But no other recession has looked like the Great Depression. So, those who understand economic policy know that the many interventions of government are responsible for the length and depth of the Depression. (The Great Recession is similar in this regard—tons of government intervention that injected all sorts of uncertainty into private investment decisions, reduced the market's normal adjustments, and greatly slowed the recovery.)

Tucker quotes Paul Johnson who described Coolidge as "the most internally consistent and single-minded of American presidents." (5) Depending on how the two are judged, it's not clear whether Reagan rose to Coolidge's level of philosophical consistency. But Coolidge served in less challenging times—a smooth set of current events, a friendly Congress, and a reigning ideology that fit his views more easily.  

Coolidge was forced into the presidency by Harding's death in 1923 and had to handle the difficulties of the scandals in Harding's administration. But his problems paled next to what Reagan inherited: a moribund economy (high unemployment and tepid growth), profound economic troubles (high inflation and foreign investment deficits), an established welfare state (post-FDR and post-War on Poverty), much higher levels of faith in and dependence on government, and immense foreign policy challenges (an inflamed Middle East, a weakened American military, and an existential threat in the USSR). Moreover, Reagan had to govern along with a strongly Democratic House, necessitating compromises that he might not have made in Coolidge's times. 

The good news for Reagan: the challenges he faced and the recovery he led make it easy to recognize him as one of our nation’s best presidents. In contrast, Coolidge's success in quiet times makes his greatness more subtle. Thankfully, Tucker's book educates us about the life of John W. Davis and the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. 


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