Former President Grover Cleveland – a Democrat – is making a comeback among conservatives for his strict limits on government spending. But Cleveland's principles make for bad politics, which is why there will probably never be another president like him.
Washington has a monument. Jefferson and Lincoln have memorials. Grover Cleveland? Well, there’s a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike named after him (it’s between exits 11 and 12 northbound). Otherwise, Cleveland is best remembered – if he’s remembered at all – for being the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms.
But recently Cleveland seems to be making something of a comeback. He is frequently cited by conservatives and libertarians alike as one of our great presidents. Republican Congressman Ron Paul, who is sometimes called the “intellectual grandfather” of the tea party movement, keeps a picture of Cleveland in his office. “To me he has always been a great president,” says Mr. Paul, noting that Cleveland was “one of the last presidents who had some concern about limited government.”
Andrew Canfield of the Republican Liberty Caucus – a group that promotes “individual liberty, limited government, and free enterprise within the Republican Party” – writes that what America really needs is a “boring president” like Grover Cleveland, who “kept the budget balanced, currency strong, and the government off the backs of the American people.”
“Grover Cleveland was a principled classical liberal,” writes Loyola University Maryland economics professor Thomas DiLorenzo on the libertarian website LewRockwell.com. “He was the last American president in the Jefferson/Andrew Jackson/John Tyler tradition, and the last good Democrat to serve in that office. For the most part, his successors (in both parties) have ranged from pathetic panderers to dangerous, megalomaniacal warmongers, or both.”
Grover Cleveland was a hands-off president – which is precisely why so many conservatives and libertarians are enamored of him. He believed his most important function was to prevent Congress from enacting bad laws. To that end, he vetoed an astounding 414 bills in his first term, twice as many as all his predecessors combined. One bill would have given drought-stricken Texas farmers $10,000 to purchase seed grain. “Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character,” he wrote in his veto message, “while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.” He rejected another 170 bills in his second term, for a total of 584 vetoes, second only to Franklin Roosevelt’s 635 (and FDR served more than three terms).
In his second inaugural Cleveland declared, “The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government its functions do not include the support of the people.” But his aversion to paternalism sometimes came across as callous, if not cruel. When a hurricane devastated the Southeast in the summer of 1893, leaving thousands homeless and starving, Cleveland categorically rejected pleas for help. His secretary of war, Dan Lamont, explained that it would be unconstitutional for the government to provide direct aid – though he did offer to lend some spare tents to the homeless. It was a principled position, but it certainly did nothing to endear Cleveland to a population already wrestling with a crippling recession (now known as the Panic of 1893).
However fervently some conservatives and libertarians might wish otherwise, there will probably never be another Grover Cleveland, and for a good reason: A president – or any politician, for that matter – perceived to be so indifferent to the suffering of his or her fellow citizens is doomed to political irrelevance. When Cleveland left office in 1897 he was so thoroughly despised that even his own party repudiated him. One Democratic senator went so far as to condemn the Cleveland administration as “undemocratic and tyrannical.”
Which probably explains why Grover Cleveland’s most visible memorial is a turnpike rest stop.
Matthew Algeo is the author of “The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth.”