The reason that John W. Dean was interested enough in Warren G. Harding to write a biography becomes obvious at the end of the book. Just as Dean was involved in the Watergate scandal, Harding is (Dean argues unfairly) remembered for the "teapot dome scandal" that reached the public eye immediately following his death 2 1/2 years into his administration. Harding's death led to the appointment of Vice President Calvin Coolidge to the presidency in August 1923.
Warren G. Harding was certainly a supporter of progressivism. However, he split with Theodore Roosevelt because Roosevelt was disloyal to the Republican Party by running against Taft on the Progressive Party or Bull Moose Party (so-called because Roosevelt had said that he was "fit as a bull moose"). The conservatives and progressives within the Republican Party were at odds, but Harding was hardly a conservative. According to Dean:
"In late 1911 and early 1912 Harding and the Star* had railed at the progressive movement within the Republican Party, which Harding believed was based on personalities, not principles. Harding was not opposed to progressive ideas, such as voter initiatives, recall of elected officials, referendums on ballot issues, corporate trust busting and resource conservation. But he found the progressives' 'unreasonable antipathy to Taft' baseless, and TR's talk about fighting against special interests for the common man 'claptrap'...To Harding Roosevelt was a traitor..."
When Harding ran for Senator from Ohio in 1914 Taft endorsed him, but he was not ideologically committed to either the conservative or progressive ideology. Dean writes (p. 36) "the audience could hear what they wanted". As a junior US Senator Harding was asked to be keynote speaker at the 1916 Republican Presidential convention because "Republicans wanted to heal the division between the progressive and conservative factions of the party, and Harding held the respect of both elements, in spite of his earlier disapproval and chastisement of the progressives who had bolted to the Bull Moose Party in 1912."
The one area where Harding significantly differed from the Democrats was that he favored protectionism while the Democrats opposed it. Harding (p. 32) opposed free trade and believed that Woodrow Wilson's low tariff policy would result in a depression. The two chief differences between Harding and Wilson were that Harding was more statist in that he favored protectionism and that he was less supportive of the League of Nations than was Wilson. In a speech before the Senate (p. 49) which Dean argues was preliminary to his presidential campaign, Harding argued that he could not sign the League of Nations treaty unless an article were added relieving the US from defending other countries without the approval of Congress as required by the Constitution. Harding said to the Senate (p. 49):
"A Senator may be as jealous of his constitutional duty as the President is jealous of an international concoction, especially if we cling to the substance as wll as the form of representative democracy."
The New York media (p. 67) opposed Harding's candidacy because the Times, the Post, the World, the New Republic and the Nation perceived him as a second rate conservative. But Harding was not a Mugwump (he was too young) and was not at all influenced by the laissez faire ideas of the late 19th century, to include Sumner's and Godkin's. Nevertheless, the Nation wrote that Harding was an (quoted on p. 67):
"amiable, faithful, obedient errand boy for the Old Guard politicians and the business interests they serve...In truth he is a dummy, an animated automaton, a marionette that moves when the strings are pulled."
Thus, the pattern of the left wing progressives calling the right wing progressives "old guard" is established by the Harding candidacy (it was more likely a product of the Taft-Roosevelt fight). But Harding did NOT reflect the laissez faire views of Sumner and was less linked to east coast business interests than was Roosevelt. Thus, by 1920 the left had established a pattern of slandering right-wing progressives. But true advocates of small government were already virtually non-existent except as a fringe of the Republican Party.
Harding's campaign hired Albert D. Lasker of the Lord and Thomas advertising and public relations firm in Chicago. It may have been the first to introduce advertising and PR techniques that are commonly used today.
Harding was not a particularly ideological candidate. William McAdoo described a typical Harding campaign speech as (quoted on p. 73):
"an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it, triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and over work."
Dean observes (p. 77) that Harding's victory over Democratic candidate Jim Cox in 1920 may have been as much a rejection of Wilson as a vote for Harding. As well (p. 77):
"Harding biographer Andrew Sinclair attributes the victory to Harding's ability to give voice to the dream of the rural past by the promise of returning to normal times..."
There was no ideology or rejection of Progressivism. Just a mood change.
After election, Harding appointed Henry C. Wallace secretary of agriculture (p.85):
"Harding knew he would have to take political flack for selecting Wallace, because his liberal leanings were offensive to the right wing of the party, but the president-elect understood that the party's progessives would support Wallace."
Dean adds (p. 86):
"Harding was impressed with young Hoover and wanted him in his cabinet, but Republican elders and conservatives objected...Harding experienced more internal party squabbling and opposition to Hoover than any of his choices. Notwithstanding old guard opposition that he was too liberal, too ambitious, too international in his views, not to mention too publicly popular, Harding offered Hoover the Deoartment of Commerce or the Department of the Interior."
Wilson did not leave the country in good shape (p. 94). In his inaugural address (p. 96) he stated that the U.S. would not join the League of Nations but would have an activist and interventionist foreign policy. He criticized businesses that profited from the war. He said (p. 96):
"Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government and at the same time do for it too little."
That is hardly the view of an advocate of small government or laissez faire.
On April 12, 1921 Harding (p. 100):
"addressed a joint session of Congress concerning the policies, plans and matters he believed the Congress should undertake...Harding's normalcy was not a call to turn back the clock but rather...he was calling for onward, normal way...He called on Congress to cut government expenditures by creating a Bureau of teh Budget, he urged revising the federal tax laws including the abolition of the excess profits tax, and he requested that Congress enact emergency tariffs followed in six months with more comprehensive revisions...he called for a new immigration law; he raised the need to deal with emerging transportation problems (railroads, highways as well as the new civil and military aviation); he asked Congress to regulate the new technology of radio and transcontinental cable communications; and he called for establishing a merchant marine. No request surprised and confounded his conservative colleagues more than his recommendation that they create a department of public welfare that would be responsible for 'education, public health, sanitation, conditions of workers in industry, child welfare, proper amusement and recreation, the elimination of social vices.'"
On May 27, 1921 Harding signed an emergency tariff measure and in July 1921 the House passed a bill that increased tariffs across the board. In September 1922 Harding signed the Fordney McComber Act which reflected a hodgepodge of special interests. The result, though, was that other countries responded with high tariffs, hurting American agriculture (p. 105).
In 1921 Harding's Budget Accounting Act created the Bureau of the Budget and the General Accounting Office. Harding did favor tax cuts (P. 106). However, he also supported (p. 112) a host of government interventions concerning agriculture such as the Grain Futures Act which regulated speculation on commodities and the Packers and Stockyard Act insuring fair practices on the part of the meat packing industry.
Dean quotes Schapsmeier's and Schapsmeier's "Disharmony in the Harding Cabinet" on p. 113:
"[t]he amount of progressive-type legislation during [Harding's brief presidency] was not duplicated until the New Deal."
Harding also advocated an activist fiscal policy more than a decade before the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dean writes (p. 115):
"[he prodded] state and local governments to commence public works projects that would provide employment. The president took similar action at the federal level, ordering all his cabinet secretaries to look for federal projects that could be started sooner rather than later...Harding's pump priming was contrary to hi philosophy of using federal funds to solve the unemployment problem..."
Harding also tried to unravel the racism that was prevalent during and characteristic of Woodrow Wilson's administration (p. 124). "Wilson had removed Republicans and blacks from appointed positions, replaced them with white Democrats and then locked them into the system by extending civil service protections.
In 1922 (p. 137) Harding:
"called for the end of child labor, by consitutional amendment if necessary. His message...pleaed Congress, the New York Times and even such progressive journals as the Literary Digest."
It is evident that Harding was hardly a conservative. Following on the heels of William H. Taft, he was probably slightly to Taft's left and to Theodore Roosevelt's right. He was a blend of conservatism and progressivism, hardly to the right of Woodrow Wilson. Following the left wing presidency of Roosevelt and the mildly conservative but progressive presidency of Taft, Harding was very much in the tradition of Republican progressivism and was certainly no advocate of laissez faire or free market ideas. He was a low-tax progressive.
*Harding's business was that he was owner and editor of the Marion Star.