By Ivan Eland
The cult and power of the American presidency has become so great that the election campaign has become a full-fledged circus that focuses on everything — for example, memory lapses, gaffes, or alleged past sexual harassment — except the potential policies that the candidates would actually promulgate if they ever got elected. True, there are debates about such issues. But few voters actually watch them, and the brief news coverage of them, which is all most people see, is of memorable gotcha lines or flubs that make good sound bites.
So we seem to know everything trivial about the candidates, including what they had for breakfast, except what they would do after taking office. A recent example is whom presidential candidate Michele Bachmann would add to Mount Rushmore. The initial reaction of most responsible voters — very understandable — would be, “Who cares?”
Yet in a campaign where the media focuses on the trivial and absurd, if you can’t beat ‘em, why not join ‘em? After all, analyzing whom a candidate would add to Mount Rushmore, instead of if they can remember a specific fact when under pressure, might just provide some sort of window on what policies a candidate might pursue if successful. And Bachmann provided reasons for selecting some presidents, if not necessarily always good ones.
First, she would add President James Garfield because she said he was the only president to rise directly from the House of Representatives. At first, this might seem a strange criterion for selection, or very cynical coming from a “small-government conservative,” because Garfield only served four months before being shot by an assassin and thus didn’t do much in office. But, of course, Bachmann herself is attempting to replicate this unlikely path to the presidency. So her first selection can be accounted for by pure politics.
Her second choice makes more sense. She selected Calvin Coolidge because he “got the country’s budget back on track.” “Silent Cal” is not a bad choice at all since he largely continued the policies of Warren Harding, whose death elevated Coolidge to the presidency. Harding was trying to return the country to “normalcy” after Woodrow Wilson’s debacle of getting the United States enmeshed militarily in World War I and the consequent Russian Revolution, which helped cause World War II and the Cold War, respectively. Harding’s wise policies entailed stopping U.S. meddling overseas, dismantling much of the government added during the war, being the first and only president to reduce the federal budget below prewar levels, and returning to a laissez-faire economy — all traditional American policies that the founders would have been proud of. Coolidge largely continued these policies, and he doesn’t have the baggage of Harding’s Teapot Dome scandal, thus allowing Republican presidential candidates to admire him. Still, Harding may have been a better president than Coolidge, because Harding had no personal role in his administration’s scandal, and it was venial, not constitutional like the horrendous Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration. Also, Harding was more laissez-faire than Coolidge and didn’t increase the money supply as much as Coolidge, whose actions later contributed to causing the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Coolidge at least would be a respectable addition to Mount Rushmore. In my book Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, I ranked Coolidge as the 10th greatest president (Harding was 6th).
On the other hand, Reagan should not be put on Mount Rushmore. Unlike Harding and Coolidge, Reagan was a small-government fraud and had probably the worst constitutional scandal in U.S. history. Iran-Contra was even more dangerous constitutionally than Richard Nixon’s Watergate indiscretions. Conservatives choose to repress memories of this flouting of the only remaining major power that Congress has — the power of the purse — to directly aid the hapless Nicaraguan Contras using proceeds from illegal arms sales to terrorism-sponsoring Iran.
As if that’s not enough, Reagan patented the fake tax cut, which the Republican Party has been using to get elected ever since. Reagan cut taxes but never had any intention of cutting government spending; unlike Bill Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower, who reduced federal spending as a portion of GDP, Reagan increased it. Of all presidents since Truman, Reagan added the second greatest number of civilian government personnel as a percentage of the population. When taxes are cut but spending is not, either future taxes have to be raised (which Ronald Reagan did several times), borrowing has to occur to cover the fiscal deficits, or money has to be printed. Thus, Reagan added greatly to the national debt, from which taxpayers are still burdened with interest costs long after Reagan’s retirement. Also, with the tax “reform” of 1986, Reagan increased the legitimacy of and guaranteed robust revenues from the dysfunctional and economy-dragging U.S. tax system.
But didn’t Reagan win the Cold War? No, most revolutions happen because of internal pressures, not ones originating externally. The fall of the Soviet Union had more to do with the nonviability of the creaking Soviet economic system, Soviet overextension overseas, and the collapse of the price of oil (the only thing the USSR produced that anyone ever wanted) during the mid-Eighties. Reagan’s massive peacetime defense buildup, a continuation of excessive military spending starting with Truman, was a costly way to combat the Soviets; a much better way would have been to let them overextend their feeble economy faster by letting them acquire, aid, and administer backward countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, and Grenada. Reagan definitely should not be put on Mount Rushmore.
By revealing such preferences for the additions to the mountain, Bachmann was trying to signal support for small government. She only partially succeeded.