From One Gilded Age to Another: The GOP’s Playbook Looks a Lot Like Grover Cleveland’s -
Which past president stood up most stalwartly for the anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-union principles that animate today’s conservative movement? Of course, most activists on the right would confer that honor on Ronald Reagan. However, the revered Republican chief executive often governed in ways that would place him on the tiny left fringe of today’s GOP: Reagan raised income and payroll taxes, increased federal spending on domestic programs as well as the military, and avoided attacking labor unions in the private sector.
Some on the right speak kindly of Calvin Coolidge. But those who praise “Silent Cal” for cutting taxes on the rich are understandably mute about his fondness for the Ku Klux Klan; his racist attitudes toward all non-“Nordic” races; and his contempt for women who dared to drive cars, ride horses, or engage in politics. Moreover, Coolidge was no union-basher. In 1926 he signed a landmark bill that established collective bargaining for railroad workers, then a key sector of the labor force.
Ironically, the White House occupant who best represented the views that now dominate the American Right was a Democrat: Grover Cleveland, the only Democratic president from the eve of the Civil War to Woodrow Wilson in 1912. When Cleveland, a rotund New Yorker, was first elected in 1884, his party’s base was remarkably similar to that of the GOP today: white Southerners from all classes and white workers everywhere who did not belong to unions. The Democrats’ standard-bearer also expressed doubt that any “sensible and responsible” woman would ever want to vote.
As president, Cleveland took several opportunities to denounce those Americans who, as Mitt Romney expressed it to his donors in Boca Raton, expected the government to provide them with the necessities of life. In 1887 he vetoed a bill that earmarked $10,000 to buy seed for drought-stricken farmers in Texas. “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution,” Cleveland explained in his veto message. “I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.” He then added a pithy note of pedagogy: “The lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”