Despite their differences in personality, Presidents Harding and Coolidge shared nearly identical policy positions. Under their conservative economic agendas, the US economy was booming. Could the party’s next nominee keep the good times rolling with another blowout win?
The Last Four Years
Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it best when he said, “While I don’t expect anything very astonishing from [President Coolidge], I don’t want anything very astonishing. Coolidge’s personality matched his beliefs about government, stay quiet. Along with Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon, who was first appointed by Harding, the administration continued its pro-business style. Coolidge favored non-interference with industry, a big change from the activist presidencies of the Progressive Era. Regulatory agencies now served to assist business expansion. The most appropriate summary of his views came from Coolidge himself, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
Coolidge and Andrew Mellon believed in what we now call “trickle-down economics.” They continued to cut taxes, especially for the wealthy, thinking that they would invest their money back into the economy. And at the time, it worked! The Roaring ‘20s got their name thanks to widespread industrial growth, rising wages, declining unemployment, and bull markets. In reality, most of the money was going into the pockets of the rich and wealth inequality was rising. There was an overproduction of goods for which there were not enough wealthy consumers. The administration’s fiscal policy also encouraged high-risk speculative stock trades. Probably nothing to worry about, though. One major group that did not benefit from the prosperous times was farmers. As wartime demand faded, equipment costs rose and agricultural profits fell. Twice, Congress passed bills for the federal government to purchase surplus crops, and twice, Coolidge vetoed it. The buyback plan was not a perfect solution, but Coolidge offered no alternative.
Coolidge also advanced Harding’s goals on foreign policy. He opposed joining the League of Nations, although the US did have a hand in some postwar negotiations. Despite this isolation from Europe, the Coolidge administration aggressively advanced American business interests in the Western Hemisphere. Eventually, Latin American leaders met in Havana to demand changes in American conduct. Coolidge traveled to Cuba to face their criticisms. He promised friendlier policies in the future, but made no serious changes at the time. It was the last time a sitting president visited Cuba until Barack Obama in 2016. Similarly, Coolidge maintained a tough stance on immigration. The latest quotas targeted Eastern Europeans and Asians.
A rare example of activism in the Coolidge administration was Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. He established new regulations for the emerging technology of radio. The regulatory board he created eventually became the Federal Communications Commission. Hoover was also instrumental in the regulation of transportation. For air-travel, his department set standards for runways, inspected planes, and approved pilot licenses. For automobiles, they created vehicle codes and guidelines for traffic laws, including the standardization of street lights. Because of his previous work organizing aid during World War I, Hoover was tasked with overseeing a relief effort during the 1927 Mississippi River floods. It was one of the worst natural disasters America faced in the Twentieth Century.
It was impossible to deny that conservative Republicans had brought economic prosperity to most of the country. The only divisive issues at the time were farming relief and Prohibition. The ban on alcohol was most popular in religious areas of the South and West. Its supporters were considered “dry,” while those who advocated for repeal were called “wet.”
Party Watch & The Candidates
In 1927, President Coolidge addressed his potential candidacy by handing out slips of paper reading, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928,” at a press conference and leaving the room. While some still speculated that he meant that he would not seek the nomination without the convention’s insistence, the state preference primaries went on without him. Although he underperformed in these primaries, the front runner by the time of the convention was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. From humble beginnings as a farm boy in Kansas, Hoover earned his wealth as an engineer and businessman. He was truly a self-made man. His political fame came when he organized relief efforts during World War I. He seemed to have the perfect mix of business knowledge and humanitarian instincts. Hoover won the nomination on the first ballot. In his acceptance speech, he proclaimed, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of the land.” To earn some more votes from farmers, who had been neglected by Coolidge, the party selected Kansas Senator Charles Curtis. Their platform called for continuing Harding and Coolidge’s economic policy, tax reductions, high tariffs, and enforcement of Prohibition.
Not only were the Democrats coming off of another brutal presidential loss, their 1924 convention was the most contested of all time. The party struggled to unite rural, dry Southerners and Westerners with urban, wet Northerners and Easterners. This year, most party favorites avoided candidacy due to the Republicans’ invincible economy. Former Secretary of Treasury William McAdoo, whose supporters helped cause the party’s rift four years prior, chose not to run. This left the nomination wide open for his 1924 opponent, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. Like Hoover, Al Smith was a self-made man who grew up on the streets of New York. Despite his closeness with progressive New Yorker Franklin D. Roosevelt, Smith was a product of the Tammany Hall political machine. His efficiency as governor made him very popular in the could-be swing state, but he posed a risk as the first ever Irish-Catholic presidential candidate. Also like Hoover, Smith won the nomination on the first ballot. His running-mate, Arkansas Senator Joseph G. Robinson, was his opposite – a dry Protestant. The Democratic platform accused Republicans of ignoring farmers and failing to enforce Prohibition.
Hoover and Smith represented the fight between East and West. While their policies views were not far from each other, their personalities were night and day. Hoover was seen as reserved and blunt. Smith was informal and down-to-earth. As one advertising executive put it, “I might get more fun out of having Smith around, but I’d make more money with Hoover.”
In addition to Republicans’ good economy, Smith faced three major challenges in his campaign: his religion, his connection to Tammany Hall, and his opposition to Prohibition. Reaction to Smith’s Catholicism was extremely bigoted. Though he made it clear that he believed in the separation of church and state, many thought that a Catholic president would take orders from the Pope. The most paranoid citizens feared that Smith would annul Protestant marriages and declare their children bastards. They even claimed that he planned to extend the Holland Tunnel all the way to the Vatican. Protestant preachers spoke out against Smith to their congregations. On a campaign stop in Oklahoma, the candidate faced burning crosses from the KKK along the route to his speech. Smith’s connection to Tammany Hall also hurt him in rural areas. While every major city had a political machine of their own, Tammany was regarded as the definitive symbol of corruption. Finally, Smith’s preference to leave Prohibition up to the states drew hate from temperance organizations. His connection to alcohol led to rumors of him being drunk in public and tied him to other vices, such as gambling. Some even called him “Al-coholic Smith.”
Although he claimed that there was vitriol on both sides, Hoover faced significantly less criticism. The worst attacks accused him of nefarious deeds while traveling as a businessman and alleged that he was secretly a British citizen, alluding to the time he spent in Europe during the war. Hoover did not engage with these attacks, making him seem above petty politics. He stressed America’s system of free enterprise as the key to economy prosperity. Building on party slogans of the past, his campaigners promised “a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.” While he distanced himself from the worst anti-Catholic attacks against Smith, he did little to prevent their spread. He warned that the Democrats’ plan for farm relief was Socialistic. His campaign created an image of Hoover as the right man for the times. He was knowledgable in technology, administration, and business. He was also seen as the best man to handle a crisis.
A new form of communication was becoming increasingly important to campaigns – radio. Again, Hoover had the advantage. His matter-of-fact way of speaking made him come across as serious and intelligent. Smith’s loose and witty personality did not translate over the airwaves. He froze up in front of the mic and listeners had difficulty understanding his East Coast accent.
It’s another blowout win for the Republicans. Hoover did well in all regions. He won border states and also had some unexpected victories in the “Solid” South. It was the first Republican win in Florida since the disputed election of 1876, the first in North Carolina and Virginia since 1872, and the first ever in Texas. Georgia remained the only state to have never voted Republican. Embarrassingly, Hoover even won Smith’s home state of New York.
Herbert Hoover became America’s 31st president! His electoral votes were a whooping 444 to Smith’s 87. Significantly more Americans voted this year than in 1924. Hoover won by over six million votes. Despite the enormous loss, Smith earned about twice as many votes as his party’s previous nominee, John Davis. The party also regained some ground that Davis lost in urban centers.
What Did It Say About America?
America was really bigoted against Catholics! Al Smith’s said of his loss, “The time hasn’t come yet when a man can say his beads in the White House!” His opponents joked that, when he heard of his defeat, Smith immediately wired the Pope, “Unpack!” While Catholicism, Tammany Hall, and Prohibition certainly had not done Smith any favors, the truth was, beating a Republican in a time of economic prosperity was nearly impossible.
Was It The Right Decision?
It sure seems like this Herbert Hoover guy was the best man for the job! Keep the economy growing! The bull market will last forever!
Man, it’s hard to imagine the Democrats ever winning again.