The career of Calvin Coolidge, one of the greatest leaders in American history, has a lot to teach current and prospective leaders right here in North Carolina.
Before becoming president in 1923 upon the death of Warren Harding, Coolidge spent decades honing his political skills in state and local government, serving as a mayor, state legislator, lieutenant governor, and governor in Massachusetts. While firmly believing that government’s role in our lives should be limited, Coolidge didn’t disdain the critical importance of engagement with and experience in public service.
Nor did he offer quick fixes for complicated problems. President Coolidge eschewed cheap demagoguery. He set ambitious goals while recognizing that it could take many years of hard work to reach them. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence,” he once said. “Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
One of my favorite examples of the importance of persistence comes from North Carolina politics. For decades, governors and lawmakers of both parties have struggled to close a gap between highway needs and highway revenues.
The gap has multiple causes. One of them, the cause you’ve probably heard politicians talk about the most, is that (welcome) increases in fuel efficiency and automobile durability have been eroding the ability of gas and car taxes to pay for roads. That’s certainly true. If you charge motorists by the gallon of gas rather than the miles they drive, and motorists increasingly buy cars that allow them to drive more miles per gallon of gas, then you’ll collect less revenue per mile traveled. Similarly, if you pay for roads in part by taxing car sales and people buy fewer new cars, you’ll collect less revenue per mile traveled.
But that hasn’t been the only reason why North Carolina’s traditional sources of road funding have fallen short of providing the roads our growing state requires. Another is that politicians have systematically used these tax revenues to pay for programs other than building and maintaining roads. They used the funds to pay state troopers and driver’s education. They used the funds to finance buses, trains, and other infrastructure. And they used the funds to pay for general state purposes, or to balance the state budget during times of fiscal crisis.
Beginning in the 1980s, some North Carolina leaders tried to stop these practices. In 1986, then-Gov. Jim Martin proposed to end the transfer of Highway Fund dollars to the General Fund. He was a Republican, but he was urged to propose the change by his Democratic predecessor (and successor), Jim Hunt. The General Assembly agreed to a small part of Martin’s plan but backtracked a few years later. Hunt made little progress on the issue during the 1990s. During the latter Easley administration, transfers of Highway Trust Fund money decreased but the Highway Fund transfer remained.
That transfer did finally go away — last fall! In other words, it took nearly 30 years to make this seemingly obvious policy change. And North Carolina continues to spend gas and car tax money on transportation programs other than roads, including transit subsidies.
You could conclude from this example that inertia and special interests play so outsized a role in the process that participating in politics is pointless. For conservatives who view much of what government does as unnecessarily costly and unwisely counterproductive, the conclusion often seems tempting.
But it’s not the conclusion that principled conservative leaders such as Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, and their counterparts in North Carolina have drawn. Instead, they have dreamed big but started small. They have articulated ambitious goals to motivate their followers to action and then kept them motivated by winning and celebrating gradual victories along the way, rather than thinking of politics as an all-or-nothing game.
It’s not a game. It’s a serious, continuous struggle over who will wield government’s power of coercion, and for what purposes.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.