Romney must channel underrated president Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding promised America: “A return to Normalcy” after the tumult the country endured in the eight years of T. Woodrow Wilson’s administration.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s acceptance of the Republican nomination kicks off the sprint to the finish line in 2012’s presidential election. Voters who have been mostly disengaged will start to pay attention and so it is critical that Romney give them a clear choice to vote for. Both candidate Romney and president Obama must make their cases for why they should be the president over the next four years.

If Romney wants to defeat Obama and take advantage of his strengths as a candidate, he should channel the grossly underrated president, Warren G. Harding, who is much maligned because of the Teapot Dome scandal that involved some of his cabinet members. However, Harding was never implicated in the corruption and his actual policies that affected the nation have been totally overlooked.

Romney in many ways resembles Harding in policy and persona; Romney like Harding is said to “look presidential,” both are originally from Midwestern states—Harding from Ohio and Romney from Michigan—both were successful business men who turned around failing enterprises before entering politics, and both will have a chance to take over for a president that has left the nation’s economy in ruins and has an philosophy that stands in opposition to the founding principles of the United States.

A case for the “Founding Fathers” and private enterprise

Romney should look at Harding’s 1916 Republican National Convention speech, in which he came up with the now ever-present American phrase “founding fathers,” Harding’s even better 1920 Republican National Convention speech in which he accepted the Republican nomination for president, and Harding’s 1921 inaugural presidential address.

In these three speeches, Harding focused on two very important themes that are also the main strengths of Romney’s campaign. Harding focused on the idea of “Americanism” or “republicanism” and on the “opportunity society” that is created by business and private enterprise.

In the 1916 speech, Harding used the term “founding fathers” for the first time when he said, “We ought to be as genuinely American today as when the founding fathers flung their immortal defiance in the face of old-world oppressions and dedicated a new republic to the principles of liberty and justice.”

These principles were in opposition to Woodrow Wilson and the burgeoning Progressive movement, which stood against the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as outdated documents and was attempting to turn America into a bureaucratic-administrative state that would be neither a democracy nor a republic, but something more akin to the fascist Italian and German governments of central Europe.

Harding, like Romney, was a moderate, but reform-minded conservative that ran on a platform to return the country to “normalcy” and American principles after the disastrous second term of the Woodrow Wilson administration and World War I. While historians have often claimed that this “return to normalcy” was merely a vapid slogan, Harding was mostly successful in turning the nation’s economy around.

The massive stimulus bill passed in the early days of the Obama presidency turned out in large part to be a slush fund for the Democratic Party’s favorite constituencies.  It propped up state budgets to bail out the public sector unions that had bankrupted those states. Of course, a disproportionate amount of that money went to bailing out the blue, Democratic states.

The modern Democratic Party is wedded to a political spoils system that distributes taxpayer money to its supporters and most influential constituencies. Getting ahead in America now boils down to gaining the most influence in government and crony capitalism, not by individual initiative and free-market capitalism. The Democratic Party’s philosophy now in not just that “you didn’t build that” it is “you can’t build that unless you give me something in return.”

Harding spoke about the problem of this kind of spoils system, which is both unjust and un-republican. He said in his 1920 Republican Convention acceptance speech:

The manifest weakness in popular government lies in the temptation to appeal to grouped citizenship for political advantage. There is no greater peril. The Constitution contemplates no class and recognizes no group. It broadly includes all people, with specific recognition of none, and the highest consecration we can make today is a committal of the Republican Party to that saving Constitutionalism which contemplates all America as one people and holds just government free from influence on the one hand and unmoved by intimidation on the other.

In the age of big government and out of control political cronyism it would be wise for candidate Romney to run on restoring America to its republican and Constitutional values, just as Harding and the GOP of 1920 did.

Government reform and the opportunity society

Far from being a “do-nothing” president as many liberal activists and academic historians would claim, Harding, through his brilliant Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, put the country through a highly effective public sector austerity program of budget and tax cuts while expanding the tax base. Unemployment dropped from 11.7 percent in 1921 to just 2.4 percent in Harding’s last year in office, 1923.

This is quite different than the unsuccessful private sector austerity measures taken by many European countries and by states like California in this current crisis, which focus on only moderate budget cuts and tax increases.

Harding passed the Budget and Accounting Act in 1921, which required the president to submit a budget every year while in office and allowed an independent audit of government accounts. Harding also established the Bureau of the Budget which became the Office of Management and Budget that reviews all government funding. These measures dramatically improved government spending accountability.

Harding said of this budget reform, “The more rigid the system under which continuous attention to the conduct of the business of government is made mandatory on the part of Congress and the business administration, the more efficient will be the conduct of government.”

President Obama has failed to get even a single vote for his proposed budgets during his three years in office and has spent tax-payer money prolifically. The percentage of government spending compared to GDP is getting dangerously high and is shrinking the private economy. The stimulus package, which Obama promised would keep unemployment under 8 percent, has never even dropped unemployment to under 8 percent since it climbed past that point in 2009.

Harding pledged in his presidential inauguration in 1921 to keep the American people strong and the government limited; he pledged to adhere to the “opportunity society” that praises the building of wealth that has made America the greatest attraction for immigrants in human history:

We would not have an America living within and for herself alone, but we would have her self-reliant, independent, and ever nobler, stronger and richer. Believing in our high standards reared through Constitutional liberty and maintained opportunity, we invite the world to the same heights… Wealth is not inimical to welfare; it ought to be its friendliest agency.

A battle of ideas

The 2012 presidential election will be a battle of ideas. The limited government, pro-growth ideas of Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, won out in the 1920’s, turning around a stagnant economy and creating the “Roaring Twenties.” High taxes and big government lead to a prolonged Great Depression in the 1930’s, and a lost decade for economic growth. Romney should not hide from his success, but make the case that he wants to give every American the opportunity to accumulate their own wealth instead of being reliant upon the government. This is the choice that Romney, like Harding, should give to the American people.

 

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