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Grover Cleveland, Revisited

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Grover Cleveland, Revisited

10 Blocks podcast December 7, 2022
Politics and law

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Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Troy Senik. Troy is the co-founder of Kite & Key Media, a former presidential speechwriter, and a former vice president here at The Manhattan Institute. He's the author of a brand-new book called A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland. It's a biography of the man who served as both 22nd and 24th president. So Troy, great to talk with you, and thanks for joining.

Troy Senik: Delighted to be with you, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Now, many of our listeners might know Grover Cleveland only by that bit of trivia that I mentioned. He's the only president to have served two non-consecutive terms in office. But your book makes the case that he deserves a wider amount of attention, wider study. As you note, while there is no good case for him to be on Mount Rushmore, there is likewise no good reason that he should be entirely absent from America's historical memory. Surely there is room for him in the ranks of presidents we regard as distinctive and significant. Now, was this a conclusion you had before starting the book, or did Cleveland's distinctiveness, his significance, rise in your estimation as you worked on this project?

Troy Senik: A little bit of both. It is a conclusion that I was leaning toward coming into the book, and then the deeper I got into his life, the more firm I became in this conviction. And what I really mean by that, so there's an obvious sort of first tier of American presidents, which includes the group on Mount Rushmore and a few others, the ones that everybody sort of knows even if they're not that deep into American history or the history of the presidency. But there is this sort of second tier of people who I think are worth remembering because maybe the era that they inhabited wasn't as dramatic as some of the first-tier presidents. Although, as I argue in the book, Cleveland's era is actually a lot more dramatic than we usually remember it as. But mainly this is a group of guys who are worth remembering because there was something distinctive about them.

They held office and they conducted themselves as president in a way that doesn't have many analogies in the history of the office. And I think this is particularly true of Grover Cleveland, and I say this for a couple reasons. One, is he is a very unusual figure for a couple of interrelated reasons. The first of which is that he has an incredibly rapid ascent to the presidency. He is elected president for the first time in 1884. If you were to go back four years prior to the election of 1880, you would be looking at a country where no one had any idea who Grover Cleveland was. He was a relatively obscure lawyer in Buffalo. And in the scope of those intervening four years, he becomes the mayor of Buffalo, he becomes the governor of New York, and he then becomes the president of the United States.

And he does this because in many ways he is seen as a tonic to some of the dominant threads in American politics at this time, which is to say that in the aftermath of the Civil War when the Republican Party, largely because the Democratic Party still has the stink of the Confederacy and the Civil War on it, the Republican Party is regnant, controls most of the major organs of power. And as a result, I say in the book that this gives them the sort of political equivalent of gout. Things are too good for the Republican Party for too long. And so you see a lot of self-dealing and a lot of corruption. And what fuels Grover Cleveland's ascent is the sense that this is a man who is entirely above this, not only when it comes to opposing Republican corruption, but even combating it within his own Democratic Party.

And one of the things that I think makes him so distinctive and unusual as an American president is that he is really a man who is always operating from first principle. In many senses, he is not much of a politician. In fact, he loses a lot of political battles because he figures out what he thinks is right and is unmovable from that position even when it might be to his political advantage. So he is in some sense, and we can go into this later, it is a double-edged sword, but he is in some sense what I think most Americans would describe their ideal president as in a couple of sentences, which is to say somebody who is not necessarily thinking about the interest of his party, not somebody who's necessarily thinking about what is politically convenient, but trying to do the right thing no matter the consequences.

Brian Anderson: So Cleveland was in fact at least a minor New York figure before he became president. You noted he served as Buffalo's mayor and that he was New York's governor. Briefly, how did he fare in those positions? Was he there long enough to make much of a mark?

Troy Senik: Well, it's interesting. The time he served is really important in thinking about the legacy in those places. By the time he served, I mean the sort of short duration of them, because he's only mayor of Buffalo for a year. He's only governor of New York for two years. And one of the most important things to understand about Cleveland in all of these executive offices that he holds, he has what we would consider a very constrained understanding of executive power. This is especially true in the presidency, but it's true in the lower offices too, which is to say that the instruments of power he most likes to use are negative ones—the veto in particular, because Cleveland is sort of the last of the Jeffersonian classical liberal Democrats. So this is a guy who believes in limited government. This is a guy who believes in adherence to the constitution.

And this is a guy who is a pretty strict fiscal conservative. In fact, you can see him over and over again in the course of his career saying that any red cent spent in excess of the foundational needs of what the government requires is the equivalent of theft from the citizenry. So what you see as mayor of Buffalo and what you see as governor of New York is a sort of deep reformist instinct and a lot of vetoes directed towards the city council in Buffalo and the state legislature in New York when he thinks that they are abusing taxpayer money. And as I suggested earlier, this is directed just as often at his fellow Democrats as it is Republicans. So when we're trying to understand his legacy in these places, it is a legacy that endears him to the citizenry of Buffalo and to the citizenry of New York because they think they've got this hard-charging reformist who's standing up for the interest of the people as opposed to the political class.

But it does a fair bit of damage within his own party because he is turning the screws on his fellow Democrats as often as on the Republicans. And the only reason that this doesn't really taint his legacy in those places is that he gets out too quickly. He only does have the one year in Buffalo and the two years in Albany. And when he ends up as President of the United States over those two four-year terms, he doesn't have that escape valve. And so I think a lot of the difficulties that you see in his presidency are things that would've happened to him earlier in his career if it wasn't just for the fact that he always got out before the bill came due.

Brian Anderson: So he held office right before the dawn of the progressive era, during which period the Democratic Party would be remade by Woodrow Wilson and other progressive reformers. How did Cleveland's first term go in terms of carrying these ideals, these classical-liberal ideals into the presidential office? As you say, he wasn't a New York politician long enough for the political pushback to become significant to his actions. But what happened during his first term?

Troy Senik: His first term is certainly more successful than the second term. The second term is quite chaotic. And in the first term you're seeing him deal with a lot of issues that seem antique, that seem sort of antiquated to us now. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because you can't tell the story of Grover Cleveland without sort of explaining to people what the live issues of sort of Gilded Age America were. And I think it's an important education for people to have, because there are more distant eras in American history—the Civil War, the founding era—that we all understand pretty well. But the issues facing somebody like Grover Cleveland in a way seem like they come from a different planet.

So if you're a classical liberal like Grover Cleveland in the White House in the 1880s, what are you concerned about? Well, you're concerned about the amount of money that the federal government is dispensing in pensions to Union veterans, which seems incredibly quotidian to us now. Why did they care then? Well then it was the equivalent of what entitlement spending is now in terms of the federal budget. If you were a fiscal conservative, this is where you were looking to make cuts. And in Cleveland's case, it's not “I'm cutting back benefits for people who have served the country.” It's that the Republican Party had begun using these pensions as a kind of constituency building. In some ways it's sort of parallels the way that that earmarks were used in recent history in Congress. So these are going to a lot of people who may not have served or fraudulently filed applications claiming that they were injured in the course of service and they weren't. So that's something that he's trying to clean up.

The civil service is something that he's trying to clean up. Again, another thing that it's hard for us to grasp now because to the extent that anybody talks about civil service in the early 21st century, it's usually about the fact that we think there are too many protections, right? It's actually too hard to clear out people who are going to obstruct a presidential administration. Cleveland's era, it's exactly the opposite. It's been a patronage sump for decades. And Cleveland comes in with the idea that we have to have people, the people who are in the nonpolitical jobs in particular, there's no Republican or democratic way to deliver the mail. We have to have people appointed on the basis of merit as opposed to building this up as a political machine where it's just whoever is connected gets the job. And as a matter of fact, the salary that they draw from that job, part of it will be refunded to the party.

This is the way that party politics was financed in this day. This was before the changeover to corporate money. So these are the kinds of things that he's concerned about, this and tariffs, which again, I always as a kid, learning about this era in American history, could not understand why everybody was so obsessed with tariffs. And then when you look into the economic history of the country, you realize that they were fighting over tariffs because that's the equivalent of fighting over income taxes today. This was where all the federal revenue came from. And it's interesting to note, so Cleveland doesn't solve the tariff issue in his first term. It ends up being dealt with in his second term.

But it is interesting to note Cleveland's position was that tariffs should be lower, that tariffs needed to be cut. And it is relevant to understand that Grover Cleveland understood that issue and basically the opposite way that it is understood today, by which I mean Cleveland thought that reducing tariffs was the populist position. And his argument for that was, well, how do you actually get tariffs? Well, you be a corporation that has enough ties to the federal government to get that set aside for you. And so his feeling was this is a system that is actually designed to benefit business interests while at the same time taking money out of the pockets of American consumers. So these are the kinds of economic sort of classically liberal oriented issues that he's tackling in his first term.

Brian Anderson: Now you noted he did not have a successful second term. What happened in terms of the interregnum between his two presidential terms? Who did he lose to, and what happened in the second term? There were multiple crises during that period. Diplomatic screw-ups in South America. There was a financial crisis that was pretty significant. So just talk about this period after his first term, and what led up to the second term, and then what happened in the second term?

Troy Senik: Yeah, so he loses reelection in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland actually wins the popular vote in this election, but he loses the electoral college. And it's interesting, there's all this interest in Cleveland now, at least relatively speaking, as much as Grover Cleveland is ever going to get, because of the parallels to Donald Trump. This idea of a president having lost an election and potentially seeking to make a run for the third time. That interregnum for Cleveland looks very different than for example Trump's has, which is to say that Cleveland leaves office more or less with no regrets, he doesn't feel like he's been wronged in the course of losing the election. He also doesn't seem to, in the first couple of years anyway, have a deep and burning desire to get back. He tells friends, I think I did about as well as one could. I'm proud of what we accomplished.

And there's also a sentiment that you see in a lot of his letters that the presidency is an awful lot and maybe too much for any one person to take. There's just not a deep and burning desire for him to get back. It's very clear. So what changes? Well, a couple of things about halfway through his four years out of office. One is he watches the Harrison administration sort of slowly undo the progress that he had made. So the tariffs that he wants to go down, the Harrison administration increases them, the pensions that he's trying to keep under control, the Harrison administration increases them, government spending across the board is going up. So his sense of sort of fiscal propriety has been totally abandoned. That's issue one. Issue two is that there is this split that had been present in the Democratic Party during his first term, but is only becoming more pronounced during this interregnum.

And it's a split over economics, primarily a split between the classical-liberal sensibilities of a Grover Cleveland and the sort of populous sensibilities that you are going to see most notably embodied, at least in the future after this point, by William Jennings Bryan. And boy, talk about issues that seem antique now. The dominant issue around which this conflict is taking place is about monetary policy. It's about whether the American financial system is going to be based on gold or whether there's going to be an infusion of silver. And we definitely do not have to go into the intricacies of that. But suffice to say that the Bryanite populous side, which is in favor of silver, is in favor of it in large measure because they think the inflationary effects of it will ease their constituents in the West and the South. People have moved out into the frontier, started farms, started businesses, done so in a fashion that's heavily leveraged so the reduction of debt from inflating the currency would really matter.

Cleveland hates this. He despises the idea. For now, he thinks it's bad economic policy, but it also, as a good lawyer, it sort of violates this innate sense that he has of the sanctity of contract. Right. If you're changing the terms on which all of these financial agreements are brokered, you're upending the American economy. It's sort of a backdoor wealth distribution. That's the way he thinks of it. And he is so scared of this faction of the party taking the reins that this is really what inspires him to get back into the race, to run for a third time in 1892. I should note just as a historical difference, it's important for us to understand between that era and ours, the populists really had the wind at their backs politically. That was where all the energy was in the Democratic Party.

So the fact that Cleveland, who's already sort of yesterday's man at this point gets the nomination is a little hard for us to understand. And it is attributable to a dynamic that no longer exists in American politics, which is that Cleveland is doing this in the era before presidential primaries. So unlikely that if this had been put to a vote of the democratic rank and file, he would've come back. The restoration owes to the fact that at this point in time, it's still the party elders who are making this decision. They look at Grover Cleveland and think, “This is a guy that we haven't always loved, but at least he seems like an adult at this moment and like he's not going to roll the dice and upend the entire American financial system.”

So that's how he comes back. That's how he wins in 1892. And just very briefly to answer your question about the second term, there are a number of things that go wrong, but the main factor, and the one that usually gets his second term marked down as a failure, because this crisis runs from one end of the administration to the other, is what we now know was the panic of 1893, but what was at the time known as the Great Depression, the single largest economic downturn the country had seen up to that time. And it all revolves around this fight over gold and silver and the instability that results in the American economy.

Cleveland does not solve this because he cannot solve it because the instability really comes from the divisions within the Democratic Party, which holds the levers of power. So no investors are certain what's going to happen. It's always this tug of war with gold and silver, and he ends up sort of holding the line. He keeps the system from being upended. But this doesn't really get resolved until basically everybody in the Democratic Party has been turned out of office, which is what happens. There is a massive blowout in the midterm elections of 1894, which drives most of the Democrats out of Congress. It's the biggest loss in American history in a midterm. And then in 1896, Cleveland is succeeded by a Republican, William McKinley, at which point this all starts to settle. So Cleveland holds the line but does not get any of the credit for actually ending it because it is McKinley, his successor, who gets to enjoy the fruits of that.

Brian Anderson: You've spent a couple of years really living with Cleveland, researching his presidency, reading about him. What, in your view, can today's politicians learn from his example?

Troy Senik: Well, I think there's one important thing that politicians can learn from his example. And I think there's one important thing that voters can learn. The thing that politicians can learn, late in the book I describe the fact that one of the things that makes Cleveland so fundamentally odd is that he's just not much of a politician. He doesn't have most of the traits that you associate with a politician. If you were to do a personality diagnostic on him, you'd assume you were looking at a judge. That's sort of the way he thinks. He thinks like a lawyer. He thinks in first principles, he's the anti-Lyndon Johnson. He's not somebody who's always trying to sort of manipulate coalitions and find out exactly what the triple bank shot is to get exactly what he wants. And he suffers for that in many cases. But we can't call him that bad of a politician because he still won the presidency of the United States twice.

And the factor that I think is central to that, Cleveland describes this in his retirement. He at one point is talking with a friend about a politician who goes unnamed in the records we have of this, but what we would now call a hack politician that his friend mentions to him. And he says the problem with that sort of fellow is that he doesn't think that there's any political power in a moral idea. And that is really central to Grover Cleveland, this understanding that if you just figure out the right thing, if you just figure out the first principle, that’s actually an enormous lever to move the public. It doesn't all have to be sort of behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms. He doesn't do enough of that, probably. I think that's a fair criticism. But I think there is something there that you see in the presidency in the century afterwards, very different types of politicians than Cleveland, but this is central to the FDRs and the Jack Kennedys and the Ronald Reagans and the Barack Obamas of the world.

All great orators, which Cleveland was not, but the sense that you can move people with the power of ideas and concepts. And I think politicians too often miss that. So I think that's an insight from Cleveland. The insight that I think voters should take, and this is a line that I'm trying to thread throughout the book, is this idea that I alluded to earlier that the kind of idealistic sort of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” version of politics, which there is a lot of in Grover Cleveland. When you actually get it, and this is one of the things that makes Cleveland such an interesting case study, because you probably got it with him more than with any other president. It's powerful as a moral matter, and it is very self-constraining as a political matter. So there are lots and lots of examples. Cleveland for instance, he finally gets his tariff reform that he wanted so badly in his second term and it gets chopped up going through Congress. It's a tenth of what he actually wanted. There's all kinds of special interest carveouts in it.

Now if you zoom out far enough, the tariff rate was lower than what it was before. So you could say that he did really get what he wanted, but he considers vetoing this bill because he is so unhappy with all those sort of process files that are in it. In the end, it passes without him signing it, which is just kind of an irritable gesture if nothing else. But Cleveland leaves office by the end of his second term, sort of hated within his own party, and there is a restoration of affection, but it takes five or six years. My point in all of this is that that kind of strutting idealism definitely has its place. We probably have a deficit of it more often than a surplus, but consistently applied, it actually robs you of a lot of the tools that are necessary to be an effective politician, which isn't always a pretty business. So that's really something I want readers to take away from the book, is that the inherent tradeoff that we are always faced with in picking politicians.

Brian Anderson: Well, let's move briefly, to conclude, away from Cleveland. You've long been an observer of California's political and social scene, including in pieces for City Journal that you've written over the years. Did you pay much attention to this recent election cycle, and what are some of your takeaways? Now a moderate and conservative candidates really didn't make much of a dent in California's political monoculture, did they?

Troy Senik: No, they really didn't. And it does invite the question of what will it take, right? There are places on the West Coast where it seemed like we were awfully close to a reformist instinct, which is not to say a conservative Republican instinct, but a reformist instinct taking hold. You saw that in the mayor's race in Seattle last year, and in the, I believe the city attorney's race, where they elected a Republican. Came very close to electing a Republican governor in Oregon this cycle, partially because it was a three-way race and you had an independent candidate draining some votes that would normally have gone to a Democrat. In California, really no signs of that. I mean, a few sort of small localized ones, some localized backlashes in San Francisco, for example, where they recalled the district attorney earlier this year, fights there in the schools.

It looked for a moment as if Rick Caruso, who was the more reformist of the two major candidates for mayor of Los Angeles, was going to have a fighting chance. He came close, closer than you would've expected a candidate like that to come a few years ago, but it wasn't exactly a nail-biter. And interestingly, California does seem to be a little bit more immune to the dyspepsia that some of the more radical policies on the West Coast have generated even in deep blue places like Oregon and Washington. I don't know precisely what to attribute that to. I think part of it certainly has to be that there's something of selection bias here in that the people who were the most distressed by the trajectory of policies in California, I think are increasingly not living in California. So yeah, so this may become something of a one-way ratchet.

The other thing that I have just always noticed, and now I have not lived in California for several years, maybe this has changed. I would be surprised if it has, though, is California is different even than a deep-blue locale like New York, like New York State, New York City, insofar as there is just not a deep civic culture there, by which I mean the normal person that you meet on the street in California tends not to be that engaged in the state's politics. It is just not central to the way that people conceive of the state. And so they really only start thinking about it when they get backed into a corner by the realities of public policy, whether it's crime, whether it's homelessness, whether it's what they're paying for—gas, whether it's concerns about whether they're going to have a reliable electricity supply.

Now granted, I've just named a bunch of things that should have backed them into a corner. So I can't tell you why we haven't quite seen the response that you would think, which I wouldn't think would be a Republican wave, but you would think that there would be some sort of broader pushback than there has been. And I suspect a lot of the explanation is this out-migration story.

Brian Anderson: Well, thanks very much Troy. Don't forget to check out Troy Senik's work on the City Journal website. That's www.city-journal.org. You should check out Kite & Key, which is producing all sorts of fascinating, informative videos. He's the author of this new book, A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can get all of that information there. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @Cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Troy Senik, thanks very much.

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