As usual, this year’s presidential campaign will test the popularity of two men. It will also tell us a lot about each man’s character, even if we think we already know all there is to know about them both. At this writing, some pundits are predicting a photo finish, maybe even a repeat of the 2000 Bush-Gore cliffhanger. Whatever the next few months produce, every presidential contest gets me pining for my personal favorite of the 44 men who have held the office—Grover Cleveland, America’s 22nd and 24th president.
Until 2000, the last time a close election produced a split decision in the popular vote and the Electoral College was 1888. Cleveland, the incumbent Democratic president, had been through a close one once before. In 1884 he won New York by just 1,200 votes—and with it, the presidency—but a switch of 601 votes in that one state alone would have swung the election to Republican James G. Blaine. Four years later Cleveland bested Benjamin Harrison by about 100,000 votes out of 11 million cast nationwide but he lost in the Electoral College 233–168. Because the contest was tight in a number of states, a slight shift in the popular vote plurality would have easily won it all for Cleveland.
Alyn Brodsky, in a biography entitled Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character, records that when reporters asked to what he ascribed his defeat, Cleveland smiled and said, “It was mainly because the other party had the most votes.” He did not equivocate. He did not whine and fret that he won more popular votes than Harrison. The “votes” to which he referred were the ones that really matter under the rules of the Constitution—Electoral College votes.
Cleveland handled his defeat with dignity. No recounts, no lawsuits, no spin, no acrimony. His grace in defeat was all the more remarkable considering that the loss meant he had to relinquish power he already possessed, not merely accept failure to attain it. He would not tolerate his political allies making an issue of the discrepancy between the popular and Electoral tallies. There was nary a hint of a “constitutional crisis” because the Constitution was Cleveland’s “controlling legal authority.” Cleveland retired to private life until he ran again in 1892, when he beat Harrison decisively, becoming the only American president to serve two nonconsecutive terms.
One reason the American people accepted the 1888 outcome in stride was that the federal government of that era just didn’t matter like the one of today does. Cleveland famously vetoed a bill to send federal money to drought-stricken farmers in Texas with the admonition, “Though the people support the government, it is not the duty of the government to support the people.”
In Cleveland’s day chronic budget surpluses at the federal level of government animated many a political contest, in stark contrast to the massive and endless deficits of today. While some people thought a surplus should be spent, Cleveland thought it was evidence that taxes were too high: “When more of the people’s sustenance is exacted through the form of taxation than is necessary to meet the just obligations of government, such exaction becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of the fundamental principles of a free government.”
Adjusted for inflation, the Obama administration spends more in one day than the first Cleveland administration spent in an entire year. Washington claims more than a quarter of national income now; in 1888, it managed to get by on about 3 percent. The two sides that will slug it out in the fall know that control of a gargantuan apparatus of money and power is at stake, and the temptations to pull out all the stops to win will be immense.
Even more emphatically, it was the character of Grover Cleveland that made the 1888 outcome a virtual nonevent. In so many ways he was a political oddity even for the Victorian times in which he served. Time and again he refused to do the politically expedient. For example, as a mayor, governor, and president, he rejected the spoils of victory and appointed the best people he could find—often earning the wrath of friends and party bigwigs because they didn’t get the nod. As biographer Brodsky puts it, “Here, indeed, was that rarest of political animals: one who believed his ultimate allegiance was to the nation, not to the party.”
Cleveland never lusted for public office. A prominent New York newspaper endorsed Cleveland for president in 1884 by declaring “three reasons” for voting for him: “1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man.” He was, by all accounts, as utterly incorruptible when he left office as he was when he first assumed it. “Public office is a public trust” was an original Cleveland maxim.
Cleveland didn’t schmooze and slither his way through smoky backrooms to political power; nor did he exercise power as if he loved it for its own sake. He did the public’s business honestly and frugally and otherwise left us alone. It would not have occurred to him to so covet power as to fear private life. Trashing either the system or a good man’s character to obtain or hold on to public office was, to Grover Cleveland, unthinkable.
Every statesman is also a politician but not every politician is a statesman. Cleveland was so quintessentially statesmanlike that it hardly seems appropriate to note that he was also a politician. He certainly didn’t seek office for the thrill of it or for the power and notoriety it brings. Politics was not the meat grinder of principles for Cleveland that it is for so many others.
What qualities define a statesman? He or she doesn’t seek public office for personal gain or because it’s the only job he or she knows how to do. Like ancient Rome’s Cincinnatus or America’s own George Washington, the statesman takes time out from a life of accomplishment to serve the general welfare. He stands for a principled vision, not for what he thinks citizens will fall for. He is well informed about the vicissitudes of human nature, the lessons of history, the role of ideas, and the economics of the marketplace.
The statesman is a truth-seeker, which means he is more likely to do what’s right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where he stands because he says what he means and means what he says. He elevates public discussion because he knows what he’s talking about. He does not engage in class warfare or in other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. He does not cynically buy votes with the money his taxes take from others. He may even judge his success in office as much by how many laws he repealed or vetoed as by how many he passed. (Cleveland vetoed more bills than all his predecessors combined.)
Grover Cleveland is my model candidate and model president. I’m betting that this fall’s campaign will only make me miss him all the more.
Lawrence Reed is the president of the Foundation for Economic Education.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.