Though the partisan identities of Democrats and Republicans now stand, for the most part, in stark contrast, there was a time when both parties had powerful conservative factions. In High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election, author Garland Tucker recounts the unique electoral battle between a conservative Republican, President Calvin Coolidge (who had succeeded to the presidency after the death of incumbent President Warren Harding in 1923), and a conservative Democrat, prominent lawyer and former West Virginia congressman John W. Davis. The election took place four years after a bruising economic recession and marked, Tucker says, the last time the Democratic Party nominated a conservative as its presidential candidate. Tucker, president and CEO of specialty finance company Triangle Capital Corp., recently spoke with U.S. News. Excerpts:
What made the 1924 presidential election particularly notable?
It was the last time that both major parties nominated a conservative candidate. We're very used to the idea that the Republican Party is right of center and the Democratic Party is left of center. Prior to 1924, both parties had a very vigorous rivalry between the progressives and the conservatives. Even though this election has never gotten much attention from historians, it really was something of a watershed. Another reason that led me to write the book is that the two candidates were just outstanding individuals who have gotten generally very little attention from historians.
As the conservative Democrat, what did Davis stand for?
His view was that the government's responsibility was limited by the Constitution and should remain limited to providing law and order domestically and providing national defense. Coolidge had very much the same small-government view.
Why hasn't a conservative Democrat been nominated since 1924?
When Coolidge won the election very resoundingly, Franklin Roosevelt, who was a young politician at that time, said this is the last time [a] Democrat should ever run as a conservative. We can't be more conservative than the Republicans. That, in fact, is what happened.
Should Democrats re-embrace conservative ideals?
I don't think there's any chance of that. Personally, as a conservative, I think it would be wonderful to have a race like 1924 when both parties nominated conservatives with fantastic credentials and with no hint of scandal.
In the book, you address the "Wall Street taint" that Davis, then a corporate lawyer, had to overcome before he ran for office. Does that stigma exist for politicians today?
Yeah, I think it does. Certainly with what happened in the recession that we either just finished or are still in, there was a good deal of backlash against Wall Street. That's a fairly constant phenomenon in American life. It's much stronger in progressive or liberal circles than it is in conservative circles.
How did Coolidge out-campaign Davis to win a landslide victory?
If you were to take a conventional list of characteristics that were requirements for someone to excel in politics, Coolidge didn't have any of them. He never kissed a baby. If he could get by with one sentence, he would never give you a paragraph. He was sort of the antithesis of what we think a good politician would be. In any event, he was extremely popular. There's an interesting quote in the book from Walter Lippmann, one of the premier pundits of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. He said the '20s was a period when the economy was taking off. There was a lot of social tension as things were changing, and yet we had a president who was the quintessential Yankee Puritan. Lippman said he thought people really took a lot of comfort in that—they could vote for a Puritan but enjoy all this good life that was coming along. They could feel reassured that we had some continuity with our past at the helm.
Why have historians generally failed to understand the election's significance?
I think one primary reason is that most American historians who were writing from the 1930s to the 1980s were basically liberal. They honestly believed that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal saved the country [in the Great Depression]. They dominated the historical perspective, and they were very dismissive of Coolidge and Andrew Mellon and Harding and anything that happened in the '20s. In some ways, I think they blamed the 1920s for what happened in the 1930s. I think some liberal historians actually blamed Coolidge, even though liberal economists know better than to do that.