With the federal debt spiraling out of control, many Americans sense an urgent need to find a political leader who is able to say “no” to spending. Yet they fear that finding such a leader is impossible. Conservatives long for another Ronald Reagan. But is Reagan the right model? He was of course a tax cutter, reducing the top marginal rate from 70 to 28 percent. But his tax cuts—which vindicated supply-side economics by vastly increasing federal revenue—were bought partly through a bargain with Democrats who were eager to spend that revenue. Reagan was no budget cutter—indeed, the federal budget rose by over a third during his administration.
An alternative model for conservatives is Calvin Coolidge. President from 1923 to 1929, Coolidge sustained a budget surplus and left office with a smaller budget than the one he inherited. Over the same period, America experienced a proliferation of jobs, a dramatic increase in the standard of living, higher wages, and three to four percent annual economic growth. And the key to this was Coolidge’s penchant for saying “no.” If Reagan was the Great Communicator, Coolidge was the Great Refrainer.
Following World War I, the federal debt stood ten times higher than before the war, and it was widely understood that the debt burden would become unbearable if interest rates rose. At the same time, the top income tax rate was over 70 percent, veterans were having trouble finding work, prices had risen while wages lagged, and workers in Seattle, New York, and Boston were talking revolution and taking to the streets. The Woodrow Wilson administration had nationalized the railroads for a time at the end of the war, and had encouraged stock exchanges to shut down for a time, and Progressives were now pushing for state or even federal control of water power and electricity. The business outlook was grim, and one of the biggest underlying problems was the lack of an orderly budgeting process: Congress brought proposals to the White House willy-nilly, and they were customarily approved.