2012 Challenge: Find Calvin Coolidge's Heir; 'Silent Cal' and Reagan Are Models for Qualities That Americans Trust

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As the 2012 election approaches, the stakes could not be higher. By most accounts, the Republicans hold that rare opportunity to un- seat an incumbent president. Whom they nominate will determine the outcome of the election and, if their nominee is elected, the success of the next four - or eight - years. While history can never precisely predict the future, it can - and should - be a guide.

The two most successful Republican presidents in the last century were Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. There were striking similarities between these two men and their presidencies. Success for both was marked by significant reductions in income tax rates and domestic spending, strong economic growth in the private sector, re-election by huge margins, and the trust and affection of the American public.

As Fred Barnes has written, When Ronald Reagan took down the portrait of Harry Truman in the Cabinet Room at the White House and replaced it with one of Calvin Coolidge, the press treated it as act of meaningless eccentricity. It wasn't. Reagan had been an admirer of Coolidge for many years. For him, the change of portraits had real meaning. Their experiences, their values, even the issues that most engaged them were the same for Reagan and Coolidge.

First and foremost, they were men of character. Coolidge embodied the classic New England virtues upon which the republic was founded: hard work, independent thinking, lack of pretense, sense of duty, perseverance, scrupulous honesty - they were the bedrock upon which he had been raised in rural Vermont and upon which he built his political career. In a decade of rapid social change, Coolidge's somewhat old-fashioned virtues resonated with the American public. Coolidge inherited the unsavory scandals of his predecessor, Warren Harding, but so transpar ently honest was Coolidge that the stained Harding legacy never tarnished the Coolidge presidency.

How could such a seemingly simple man as Calvin Coolidge, who adhered so closely to traditional virtues and conservative, Jeffersonian government, have captured the respect, admiration and even affection of the American people? After pondering the Coolidge phenomenon for eight years, Walter Lippmann finally concluded at the end of Coolidge's tenure, Americans feel, I think, that they are stern, ascetic and devoted to plain living because they vote for a man who is.

Reagan came from a modest Midwestern background. He exhibited an honest openness and total lack of pretense that were at once a bit old-fashioned but also deeply appealing to the American public. The public instinctively believed that Reagan would tell them the unvarnished truth and that they could trust him.

As Peggy Noonan has argued brilliantly in When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan, "The secret of Reagan's success was no secret at all. It was his character - his courage, his kindness, his persistence, his honesty and his almost heroic patience in the face of setbacks - that was the most important element of his success."

Contemporary pundits often considered Coolidge and Reagan intellectual lightweights, but a closer examination of their speeches and writings reveals that each man had a tightly reasoned, thoughtfully articulated and highly principled philosophy of government. British historian Paul Johnson considers Coolidge the most internally consistent and single-minded of American presidents. Similarly, Reagan's success in governing was often attributed to his unyielding allegiance to a handful of key principles. While the simple New England Puritan and the Hollywood B-grade actor were dismissed regularly by the sophisticated opinion-makers of their day, the American people recognized in each man a wellspring of honesty, candor and common sense.

The guiding tenets of governing for these two men were quite similar. …