Our View: Going small

Posted: February 13, 2013

At Tuesday’s night State of the Union address, we saw a presidency writ large — at least in the mind of the man currently occupying the Oval Office.

But if we listen, as we should, to certain commentators, we would understand that Barack Obama is merely the most recent manifestation of executive leadership that has exceeded the boundaries of what the Framers had in mind for the presidency. To be sure, Mr. Obama, in this second term, may seek to assume powers not envisioned by any predecessor, but, for the moment, he simply walks in the footsteps (though not adroitly) of “big government” chief executives who preceded him — most notably FDR, whose Hundred Days legislative torrent he wanted to emulate.

But then, Mr. Obama is a Democrat. His party has long been motivated by governmental activism. But what of Republicans, who seem to be careening down a similar path, though not quite at such breakneck speed? Where is the differentiation between parties?

Speaking on Laura Ingraham’s radio show Tuesday, paleoconservative Pat Buchanan suggested the GOP’s embrace of Big Government commenced, in earnest, with the presidency of Richard Nixon, ironically his onetime boss. If Lyndon Johnson laid the foundation of the liberal Great Society, Mr. Nixon, with his wage-and-price controls and retreat from the gold standard, framed it out.

But economic historian Amity Shlaes — author of the seminal and sorely needed revisionist tome on the Great Depression, “The Forgotten Man” — maintains the origins of the Republican reversal can be seen earlier in the 20th century. In a recent article for National Review, Miss Shlaes gives passing mention to Theodore Roosevelt’s use of the presidency as a “bully pulpit,” but focuses more on the tenure of inveterate tinkerer Herbert Hoover, who reveled in grand deals (e.g., the Smoot-Hawley tariff) that harmed rather than helped an economy on the verge of depression. What’s more, Miss Shlaes says, the Hoover presidency, from its inception, was an abject repudiation of the one immediately preceding it, that of Calvin Coolidge.

Therein lies the crux of Miss Shlaes’ thesis: The Coolidge administration was the last time a Republican presidency was, in truth, writ small. Not even the great Ronald Reagan, she says, adhered totally to the Coolidge example, not with his unfortunate penchant for deficit spending. Remember, Mr. Coolidge’s 1929 federal budget contained less spending than did the budget of 1924, the year after he assumed the presidency upon the death of Warren Harding.

For the flinty Mr. Coolidge, subject (not surprisingly) of Miss Shlaes’ latest book, not only was the business of America business, but federal parsimony (coupled with tax cuts) was also a virtue. His demeanor and governing style stood in stark contrast to those of Mr. Harding, whose genuine small-government proclivities were overwhelmed by a propensity for bombast — and an inability, or unwillingness, to rein in corrupt cronies. to whom he had given high-end federal jobs.

If there’s a lesson for the GOP in Miss Shlaes’ lengthy piece, it is this: Go the Coolidge route. Or, as she writes, “Perhaps, led by Republicans, the United States could benefit from trying out an unfashionable idea: the small presidency.”