Calvin Coolidge is often noted for his penny-pinching ways and “Silent Cal” demeanor. His administration came on the heels of massive government expansion that occurred as the U.S. entered World War I. While some natural spending contraction is to be expected as the war ended, Coolidge took it a step further – a giant step further. While today our federal government doesn’t pass budgets for half a decade, President Coolidge met with his budget director every week with the express purpose of finding places to reduce spending. This allowed him to lower federal expenditures every year of his presidency, despite a Congress flush with tax revenue from a booming economy. That’s right – government spending decreased and the economy improved. This allowed Coolidge to lower taxes as well, but always with an eye to keeping the budget balanced and paying down debt. His was a fiscal record second to no other U.S. president.
As important as Coolidge’s record on spending and taxes was, it may be another aspect of his terms in the White House that had the most impact.
In 1920 Calvin Coolidge was the vice presidential running mate of Warren Harding. The pair won the presidential election with a campaign promoting “Normalcy,” promising to bring Americans’ lives back to how it was before the upheaval of WWI. In a speech given in Boston in 1920, candidate Harding said,
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
With normalcy the foundation of the campaign, the Harding/Coolidge ticket won the presidency in a landslide, garnering 60 percent of the vote. Unfortunately, Harding’s administration was almost immediately beset by accusations of cronyism and elitism. They threw lavish parties with D.C.’s social elite, and some of their attempts at reducing the size of government resulted in scandal. As a result, the administration’s ability to govern was hampered.
Then, in 1923, during a trip through the western United States designed to shore up support in the face of scandal, President Harding suddenly passed away. Vice President Coolidge was back at his remote Vermont childhood home when he was notified of Harding’s death, and his father, a notary public, swore him in as the next president of the United States.
As a new president, Coolidge was initially met with skepticism. He was a self-made man from a small town who didn’t have much to say. But rather than being a mere caretaker president, or worse, an ineffective one, President Coolidge set out to bring to fruition the campaign promise of normalcy, this time free of the excess and scandal that had threatened to overwhelm the administration. The public felt confident in its government again, and as federal expenditures contracted, as cronyism ended, the economy soared. Normalcy – being able to count on things being constant, fair, and free of government intrusion and corruption – ushered in perhaps the greatest and longest era of economic expansion and prosperity the U.S. has ever seen.
Utah has largely excelled at its own version of normalcy. We have a low, stable, mostly flat tax rate, low levels of government spending and intrusion, and a government relatively free from scandal and cronyism. Consequently, Utah is regularly placed at the top of lists ranking states for desirability and economic outlook. Principles matter, policies matter, and it is government’s role to ensure a level playing field that can be counted on. No experimenting with unprovable programs that expand the scope and scandal of government. We should look to maintain Utah’s normalcy, and even export it. In the words of Warren Harding, and after the example of Calvin Coolidge, America needs “not nostrums, but normalcy.”
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