Michael Kazin: Which U.S. President Does Romney Most Resemble? (Hint: It’s Not a Republican)

Roundup: Historians' Take

Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.

Which past president stood up most stalwartly for the anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-union principles that animate today’s conservative movement? Of course, most activists on the right would confer that honor on Ronald Reagan. However, the only Republican chief executive with a major airport named after him often governed in ways that would place him on the tiny left fringe of today’s GOP: Reagan raised income and payroll taxes, increased federal spending on domestic programs as well as the military, and avoided attacking labor unions in the private sector.

Some on the right speak kindly of Calvin Coolidge. But those who praise “Silent Cal” for cutting taxes on the rich are understandably mute about his fondness for the Ku Klux Klan, his racist attitudes toward all non-“Nordic” races, and his contempt for women who dared to drive cars, ride horses, or engage in politics. Moreover, Coolidge was no union-basher. In 1926, he signed a landmark bill which established collective bargaining for railroad workers, then a key sector of the labor force.

Ironically, the White House occupant who best represented the views that now dominate the American right was a Democrat: Grover Cleveland, the only Democratic president from the eve of Civil War to Woodrow Wilson in 1912. When Cleveland, a rotund New Yorker, was first elected in 1884, his party’s base was remarkably similar to that of the GOP today: white Southerners from all classes and white workers everywhere who did not belong to unions. The Democrat’s standard-bearer ALSO expressed doubt that any “sensible and responsible” woman would ever want to vote....

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