We Need Another Guardian President

So often it seems like there is a sickness in politics that spreads a belief the Federal Government is a delightful sugar daddy able to provide for our every want and need. This is especially true of the Democratic Party, but is also evident to a degree in the Republican Party. As much as I admire Ronald Reagan, even he was unable to stunt the growth of power and scope of the Federal Government bureaucracies. He makes up for this failure big time for me by his success in crushing the Soviet Union. Actually the Soviet Union is easy compared to halting the growth of government.

It’s a shame that instead of looking back only to the era of FDR that folks don’t look back to when Grover Cleveland took office.

Stephen Grover Cleveland fell into politics without really trying. In 1881, local businessmen asked Cleveland, then a young lawyer, to run for mayor of Buffalo, New York. He agreed and won the Democratic nomination and the election. As mayor, Cleveland exposed city corruption and earned such a reputation for honesty and hard work that he won the New York gubernatorial race in 1882. Governor Cleveland used his power to take on the Tammany Hall, the political machine based in New York City, even though it had supported him in the election. Within a year, the Democrats were looking to Cleveland as an important new face and pragmatic reformer who might win the presidency in 1884.

In the election of 1884, Cleveland appealed to middle-class voters of both parties as someone who would fight political corruption and big-money interests. Many people saw Cleveland’s Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, as a puppet of Wall Street and the powerful railroads. The morally upright Mugwumps, a Republican group of reform-minded businessmen and professionals, hated Blaine and embraced Cleveland’s efforts at battling corruption. Cleveland also had the popularity to carry New York, a state crucial to victory.

But Cleveland had a sex-scandal to live down: he was accused of fathering a son out of wedlock — a charge that he admitted might be true — owing to his affair with Maria Halpin in 1874. By honestly confronting the charges, Cleveland retained the loyalty of his supporters, winning the election by the narrowest of margins. After Cleveland’s election as President, Democratic newspapers added a line to the sound-bite used against Cleveland and made it:

Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House! Ha Ha Ha!

Cleveland’s administration might be characterized by a quote from his inauguration address:

I have only one thing to do, and that is to do right

. Cleveland himself insisted that, as President, his greatest accomplishment was blocking others’ bad ideas. He vigorously pursued a policy barring special favors to any economic group. Vetoing a bill to appropriate $10,000 to distribute seed grain among drought-stricken farmers in Texas, he wrote:

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….

In December 1887, he called on Congress to reduce high protective tariffs. Told that he had given Republicans an effective issue for the campaign of 1888, he retorted,

What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?

He often opposed the Republican-controlled Senate.

Cleveland won the election of 1892 in part by blaming Harrison for the downturn in the economy. By February 1893, the economy was in a depression. Seventy-four railroads and six hundred banks failed that year. Meanwhile, thousands of Midwestern workers known as “Coxey’s Army” tramped toward Washington to demand government action to relieve the economic hardships of war veterans and the unemployed, which Cleveland declined to give. He vetoed hundreds of private pension bills to American Civil War veterans whose claims were fraudulent. When Congress, pressured by the Grand Army of the Republic, passed a bill granting pensions for disabilities not caused by military service, Cleveland vetoed that, too. Cleveland used the veto far more often than any President up to that time. As the price of silver dropped, there was a rush to redeem the declining silver certificates for gold, touching off a run on the U.S. treasury. He dealt directly with the Treasury crisis rather than with business failures, farm mortgage foreclosures, and unemployment. He obtained repeal of the mildly inflationary Sherman Silver Purchase Act. With the aid of J. P. Morgan and Wall Street he maintained the Treasury’s gold reserve. Critics accused him of being unfeeling and heartless, but Cleveland believed that the nation’s finances had to be maintained in sound condition.

He was an adamant opponent of strikes that interfered with interstate commerce and the operation of the government, as shown in his disapproval of the Pullman Strike. When railroad strikers in Chicago, Illinois violated a court injunction, Cleveland sent Federal troops to enforce it, since interstate commerce was involved, including mail delivery under the auspices of the federal government.

If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postcard in Chicago, that card will be delivered.

Cleveland did not see himself as an activist President with his own agenda to pursue, but as a guardian or watchdog of Congress. While several important pieces of legislation became law during his terms — most notably bills controlling the railroads and distributing land to Native Americans — he did not initiate any of it.

Cleveland will be remembered for protecting the power and autonomy of the executive branch. His record-breaking use of the presidential veto earned him the deserved moniker of the “guardian President” and helped balance the power of executive and legislative branches. But he did not think that the President should propose legislation and he disliked using legislative solutions to address America’s growing social and economic difficulties.

America’s social and economic accomplishments occurred with no meddling by Cleveland’s executive branch or by Congress. These accomplishments include Basketball, braille typewriter, Coca-Cola, cotton candy, Eastman Kodak Co., the escalator, the fountain pen, the zipper, the revolving door, X-Rays, and the gasoline-powered tractor. I do not think that this is too shabby of a list of accomplishments that occurred with no government assistance or interference whatsoever.

We need another guardian President who dislikes legislative solutions to America’s cultural and business endeavors.

Cross-posted at The Minority Report