Sunday, October 17, 2010

Message to America's Leaders: Cleveland Rocks!

As the picture above should make clear, the Cleveland to which I am referring is the president (Grover Cleveland), not the Ohio city made famous by it industrial might, football legends, bespectacled comedians, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In this blog post, I am going to show you five quotes from one of our most underrated presidents, Grover Cleveland, and argue that their wisdom ought to be heeded by today's political leaders. In order to do that, however, it first behooves me to explain why anyone should listen to Cleveland in the first place.

My admiration for Grover Cleveland often mystifies my friends. In their eyes, he is nothing but an archetypal Victorian politician, a corpulent man with a mustachioed face and phlegmatic aura whose sole noteworthy attribute is that of being the only president elected to two non-consecutive terms (as well as the only one born in New Jersey).

Of course, the very fact that he served two non-consecutive terms ought to provide them with the first hint of why I admire him so much. After all, in order for Cleveland to have achieved this distinction, both his party and the larger voting public must have chosen to elect him to another four years not while he was still serving as president - and could thus benefit from the advantages of incumbency - but after he had been out of power for a considerable period of time, when all of the assets of being in office had long since worn off. What's more, Cleveland would have had to win while laboring under the stigma of having been defeated in a previous reelection bid, a burden only partially mitigated by the fact that he had technically won the popular vote in that contest. Cleveland's ability to overcome all of these obstacles and become the first (and thus far only) president to be placed back in power after a period of absence should be viewed not as a historical hiccup, but as a striking testament to the popularity of his character and performance at that time.

Many of the things admired about Cleveland by his contemporaries also deserve applause today. His first presidential campaign in 1884 remains one of the most inspirational in American history, running as he did on the basis of his own astounding record as a reformist Governor of New York and pledging to clean up the severely corrupt state in Washington much as he had in Albany. When he began his first term in 1885, the very fact that he had been elected was in its own right noteworthy, as he was ending twenty-four years of unbroken Republican rule and thus becoming the first Democratic president since before the Civil War. During those four years in office he vetoed more bills than all twenty-one of his predecessors combined, thereby saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars that would have otherwise been wasted on partisan pet projects; implemented sweeping civil service reform that brought an end to the period of severe government corruption that had been pervasive since the late 1860s; broke the solid one-party lock on government offices that had prevailed since the cronyism of the Grant administration; reasserted the constitutional power of the president by successfully fighting against the Tenure of Office Act; and bravely advocated a lowering of tariff rates that, because of their steepness at the time, benefited the wealthy at the expense of poor and working class Americans by forcing the latter to pay unnecessarily high prices for the goods they needed. Indeed, this last policy point is of especial note because Cleveland - against the advice of many of his top aides - insisted on making the issue of tariff rates the central question of his 1888 reelection campaign. Not only did this decision display admirable courage but, more importantly, it reestablished the president's power to establish national ideological and policy prerogatives, one that had not existed in that office since the midterm elections of 1866.

After returning to power following the four year hiatus caused by his controversial loss to Benjamin Harrison in 1888, the newly restored president used his second term to rack up another impressive array of achievements. Appalled at the discovery that an American sugarcane plantation owner named Sanford Dole had led a violent rebellion against the leader of a nation with which we were at peace (the Kingdom of Hawaii) so as to increase profits for his business, he ordered Dole to step down and return the deposed queen to her rightful throne, despite the fact that this move made him a national pariah due to the growth of pro-imperialism in America; he defended Venezuela against the British Empire when the latter attempted to coerce the former into giving away land that was in dispute between the two, an act that not only protected the rights of a weaker nation (under the aegis of the Monroe Doctrine) but which, by forcing the greatest superpower of the day to back down or else risk war with America, established this country as a formidable world power for the first time in its history; he vetoed a literacy test passed by Congress that would have denied recent immigrants the right to vote; confronted with a terrible economic catastrophe - indeed the worst in American history up to that point and to this day surpassed only by the Great Depression itself - he returned America to a gold standard and staved off moves to include silver again in our currency, thus maintaining fiscal stability despite a growing movement to do otherwise; and he convinced J. P. Morgan and the Rothschilds House to replenish America's gold reserves, at considerable cost to themselves, in order to prevent our treasury from being depleted during the nadir of the aforementioned economic crisis.

Cleveland's personal character is equally worthy of respect. Few scholars of the period disagree that as a human being he was unwaveringly honest, possessed impeccable personal integrity, staunchly adhered to his ideological principles even when they were unpopular, and worked harder than few other chief executives before or since (regularly putting in sixteen hour workdays throughout the week). His loyalty to friends could reach surprising levels of self-sacrifice, such as when he risked his first presidential campaign by refusing to deny paternity of an illegitimate child which he had only claimed, years earlier, to protect other friends of his who were more likely to have fathered it (he alone among the bunch was a bachelor at the time). He even possessed tremendous physical courage when necessary; after finding a malignant tumor on the roof of his mouth and being informed that it required immediate surgery, Cleveland decided - given that the instability of America's already depressed economy might make the revelation of its president's infirm state a catalyst for further deterioration - to have the invasive operation (involving removing most of his upper jaw and replacing it with a rubber prosthesis) performed in secret... and, so as to prevent people from realizing his illness by seeing him under the influence of surgical drugs, with minimal anesthetic.

This isn't to say that Cleveland was perfect by any means. Although he opposed the use of literacy tests that discriminated against the voting rights of immigrants, he did nothing to help the black Americans who were similarly persecuted; like all of the pre-Roosevelt commanders-in-chief, Cleveland refused to consider using the federal government as an active engine for creating jobs and providing economic relief, even when the suffering of the depression over which he presided called for it; and during a union strike in which oppressed railroad laborers used their economic power to fight for fair pay and working conditions, Cleveland's determination to avoid an interruption in the federal government's postal services (which then depended on trains that, as a result of the strike, weren't running) caused him to use law enforcement to actively help the wealthy businessmen crush the striking workers. Indeed, even his post-presidency isn't without blemish, tarnished as it is by a 1905 article he wrote in Ladies' Home Journal opposing female suffrage.

Yet while it is wrong to rationalize or overlook Cleveland's flaws, many of which were quite serious, the overall sweep of his career makes it clear that he is someone whose advice should be heeded. That is why I felt it valuable to include these five quotes:

"In a government of the people no party gains to itself all the patriotism which the country contains."
- 1884
Because Cleveland was seeking the presidency as a member of the political party often associated with causing the Civil War, he had to constantly fight against claims made against his patriotism; after all, as Republicans insisted, Democrats were the haven of traitors and lesser rebels. While the catalyst behind Republican imputations against Democratic patriotism may be different today, the inclination underlying it remains the same - i.e., a desire to discredit the opposition not by rebutting their policy proposals, but by making them seem illegitimate from a fundamental nationalist standpoint. The obvious logic behind Cleveland's quote thus remains as relevant today as it was more than a dozen decades ago, and is directed at all those who accuse - directly or implicitly - Barack Obama and liberals of not being as patriotic as themselves.

"What is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?"
- 1887
Spoken by President Cleveland when explaining to his protesting advisers why he felt compelled to devote his 1887 State of the Union message - and with it the theme of the 1888 presidential election - to the controversial issue of tariff reduction, this mantra applies equally to members of both parties who prefer expediency over principle in their politics.

"It is a condition which confronts us, not a theory."
- 1887
Culled from the same State of the Union message mentioned above, it serves as the essence of Cleveland's rebuttal to the arguments of those who opposed policies which benefited the working classes on the grounds that they were inconsistent with abstract economic theories. Its current relevance comes from the fact that conservatives, libertarians, so-called centrists, and a bevy of other economic policymakers often cite economic "laws" and "rules" as the basis for opposing increased stimulus spending, minimum wage increases, strengthened labor laws, market regulations, and other measures that would not only end the recession, but result in a long-term improvement of the plight of the American working class. What these individuals overlook - sometimes inadvertently, all too often deliberately - is that economic laws are not inviolable, like the rules that govern nature or the code underlying a system of ethics; they are, in their ideal form, parts of a system that exists for the purpose of serving humanitarian objectives. As such, any economic system that sacrifices basic human rights and decency in the name of steadfast adherence to its tenets automatically renders itself at best obsolete and at worst immoral.

"While we find in our triumph a result of popular intelligence which we have aroused, and a consequence of popular vigilance which we have stimulated, let us not for a moment forget that our accession to power will find neither this intelligence nor this vigilance dead or slumbering. We are thus brought face to face with the reflection that if we are not to be tormented by the spirits which we ourselves have called up, we must hear, above victorious shouts, the call of our countrymen to public duty, and must put on a garb befitting public servants."
- 1892
Cleveland made this remark to a group of celebrating Democrats shortly after he had been reelected to an unprecedented non-consecutive second term. While the rest of the party was jubilant at his victory, Cleveland recognized that the same great movements and enthusiasms which had caused him to win the election would also turn against him if, once in power, his performance was perceived as disappointing. Not only was this observation eerily prophetic in Cleveland's case (despite the many achievements of his second term his popularity plummeted due to the depression with which he was confronted), but it is one that Barack Obama must bear in mind if he is to avoid repeating Cleveland's fate. Although Obama's presidency, like that of Cleveland, is marked by many important and admirable accomplishments - a stimulus bill that stopped the recession from becoming a depression, a health care reform bill that covers thirty-two million Americans while reducing the budget deficit, ending the lengthy and controversial war in Iraq - they are currently overwhelmed in the public mind by dissatisfaction over where he has fallen short, particularly on economic issues. If he is "not to be tormented by the spirit" that he stirred up in the 2008 election, it is imperative that he not rest merely on what he has already done right, but to see to it that that which remains wrong is corrected.

"If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial extension, or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own, ought to regulate our conduct, I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our Government and the behavior which the conscience of our people demands of their public servants."
- 1893
This quote, coming as it did from a speech in which Cleveland rejected with disgust the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, easily applies to the neoconservative agenda that still remains a powerful force in American political life. From those who supported the war in Iraq and resent Obama's ending of it to those who advocate future military actions against nations like Syria and Iran, it is important that they bear in mind the wisdom of Cleveland's observation. In this respect, Barack Obama deserves credit for adhering faithfully to the spirit of Cleveland's advice, even if many of his opponents insist on defying it.

To conclude this article, I would like to include a quote ABOUT Grover Cleveland.

They love Cleveland for his character, but they love him also for the enemies he has made.
- General Edward S. Bragg

This line, famously delivered at the 1884 Democratic National Convention which nominated Cleveland for his first presidential term, is significant for the fundamental political truth to which it speaks. Just as Grover Cleveland was the leader of his era's great reform movements, so too is Barack Obama the champion of the reformers in our own time. Yet while Cleveland wore the animosity of his powerful adversaries as a badge of honor - from Tammany Hall, which opposed his efforts at civil service reform and clean government, to the imperialists who resented his defense of Hawaiian sovereignty and the big businesses which opposed his efforts toward tariff reduction - Obama not only views the opposition of his political enemies as shameful, but works diligently to muffle the effectiveness of his policies in the vain hope that doing so will win over his foes.

It is from this desire that the greatest errors of Obama's presidency were committed:

- Instead of pushing for the $2 trillion economic stimulus package that would have ended the recession and begun the process of recovery, he instead advocated a package only one-fourth that size ($500 billion on stimulus, with an additional $287 billion on tax cuts) in the hope that doing so would earn it conservative supporters. Not only did this move fail to win him any right-wing support, but it also rendered his stimulus too small to effect a meaningful turnaround, to the detriment both of Obama's political standing and the best interest of the American people.

- Instead of tapping into widespread public anger at Wall Street to nationalize America's banks - the necessity of which had become increasingly clear years before the meltdown of 2008 - Obama instead feared being labeled as an enemy of Wall Street and big business, and as such did all that he could to assuage the concerns of those entities, from surrounding himself with advisers who catered to their interests (Tim Geithner, Larry Summers) to immediately taking serious regulatory efforts off of the table.

- Finally, instead of establishing a populist ideological paradigm in which interventionist government programs were presented as a bulwark protecting the people from the avarice and excessive power of Wall Street, big business, and the wealthy, Obama instead used conciliatory rhetoric. His aim was not merely, as he often stated, to build bridges and win as wide a range of support as possible; it was also quite clearly to avoid earning the open enmity of powerful interest groups.

This isn't to say that Grover Cleveland would have pursued the same specific economic policies in the Great Recession that I believe Barack Obama should have implemented; indeed, since Cleveland governed during the end of the 19th Century while Obama presides over the beginning of the 21st, it is impossible to discern what measures one would have proposed had he found himself confronted with the other's circumstances. That said, it is safe to assume that Cleveland, if he could, would encourage Obama to welcome instead of obsessively try (and fail) to avoid the hatred of his opponents. As he would have put it, doing this isn't just good politics; it is the key to good leadership.

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