How did Grover Cleveland do it?

I’m intrigued by Grover Cleveland, for two reasons. First, he was the only President elected to non-consecutive terms. Second, he was the only Democratic President elected from 1856 to 1912, when the US presidency finally returned to a more traditional two party dynamic, after the bitterness of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

So how did Cleveland do it, twice? As well, when in office, did he have any notable accomplishments? I’m drawing a blank.

He won the popular vote in his reelection campaign in1888, but lost to Harrison by 65 electoral votes. Harrison wasn’t a popular president and the '92 election saw a third party take some Republican states in the West. The country gave him a do over after some buyer’s remorse with his replacement.

He was a pretty effective reformer, and single-handedly shut down the “spoils system”- ie., the winner-take-all, patronage mentality of previous Presidents. Before Cleveland, every incoming President would fire everyone in sight and replace them all with his own supporters.

Cleveland refused to fire Republican appointees when he took office, effectively becoming the first President to apply the modern civil service system (ie., merit based appointments) in the US.

I read part of a biography on him recently–but it was published a long time ago (1960s?). According to that book, he was the only president to deliver his inaugural address completely from memory. Isn’t he also the only president born in New Jersey? There’s a lot of 'only’s when it comes to him, but I suppose that’s true of any president if you look at enough trivial things.

Well, he was elected twice by winning the South (because he was a Democrat) and New York (which he was former Governor). The intervening loss was because he lost New York while winning the national vote.

Notable accomplishments seem to be limited to “good government” types of policies and the reduction in the use of the “spoils system” for filling government positions. I believe Tarrifs were a big issue as well, as well as some labor issues - details are hazy.

Cleveland based his political career on being a reformer, bent on cleaning up corruption in government. It was the central theme of his campaign for mayor of Buffalo, following his serving as a county sheriff. At the time, corruption in Buffalo city government was such that it was basically an open sewer. Based on his record as Buffalo mayor, he became New York governor, promising to do the same for the state. He was chosen as presidential candidate by the Democrats because the Republicans were running James G. Blaine, a very able and qualified candidate who was, however, tarbrushed with scandal, and generally believed to be crookeder than a dog’s hind leg. In fact, a group of Republicans called the “mugwumps” approached the Democratic leadership and informed them that they were very unhappy with Blaine, and would throw their weight behind the Democrat, if the Dems would nominate someone they could stomach. The young crusading governor of New York fit the bill to contrast with the corrupt Blaine, and be acceptable to the mugwumps.

Interestingly, during the campaign against Blaine, the Republicans dug up the dirt that reformer Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child (“Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?”). Cleveland admitted to it, and hastened to point out that he had paid child support, which he was not legally bound to do in those days. The electorate seemed able to separate Cleveland’s positions regarding honesty and rectitude in public office from his conduct in private life and elected him anyway (“He’s in the White House, ha ha ha.”).

Cleveland would probably be remembered more favorably if he hadn’t had to deal with a financial panic in his second term.

Cleveland’s first campaign was also interesting in that he managed to survive another bit of negative publicity concerning his lack of military service. In an era when “waving the bloody shirt” was a common tactic, candidates’ Civil War records often became an issue. Cleveland had bought his way out of the draft during the Civil War, something which his detractors made full use of. It was perfectly legal at the time, and many sons of well-to-do families, such as Cleveland, did it. But it became a liability later in running for political office, rather like the flap over Bush’s National Guard record.

Theodore Roosevelt’s dad also bought a substitute, which was entirely legal as yabob says, but about which the warlike T.R. was forever after ashamed.

Cleveland won because many in the GOP loathed Blaine, who was undeniably crooked. The country was simply ready for a change after 24 years of intermittently corrupt Republican rule. The eleventh-hour speech of a prominent clergyman blasting the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and rebellion” also backfired bigtime, but even so the election of 1884 was a squeaker.

Cleveland was a hard worker and was rigorously honest. When he was sheriff of Buffalo he personally conducted court-ordered hangings because he didn’t think he could ask someone else to do it for him. One newspaper endorsed him by saying, “There are three reasons to vote for Cleveland. 1. He is honest. 2. He is honest. 3. He is honest.” In office, he acted as a civil-service reformer even when he didn’t have to. He began the modernization of the Navy. He favored tariff reform. He helped mediate a British-Venezuelan border dispute that might otherwise have led to war. He handled the Hawaiian annexation dispute fairly. As noted above, the Panic of 1893 seriously hurt him in his second term. Cleveland was a conservative when it came to the reach of the Federal government, and vetoed a lot of private pension bills and what we would now call disaster-relief bills because he didn’t think that was what Uncle Sam should be doing.

My favorite Cleveland joke… he usually got along well with the House of Representatives but fought quite a bit with the GOP-controlled Senate. The story goes that Cleveland’s wife (the lovely young Frances Folsom*) woke him in the middle of the night to say, “Wake up, Grover! I think there’s a burglar in the house!” Cleveland sleepily rolled over and mumbled, “In the Senate, maybe, my dear. Not in the House.”

G.C. was a good guy who deserves a better reputation today. The Wiki article is worth a read:

*I see from Wiki that their youngest son, Francis, didn’t die until 1995!

On the other hand, T.R. is (IIRC) the only president to have won the Medal of Honor. And since his son T.R., Jr. won it, he and Jr. are one of (IIRC) only two father-son Medal of Honor recipient pairs (Arthur MacArthur and Douglas MacArthur being the others).

I think that more than makes up for his dad’s buying his way out.

Mentioning the “lovely young” Ms. Folsom, another one of G.C.'s accomplishments was being the only President to be married in the White House itself (as in, within the building itself; only one other President has been married during his term of office; I think that was Woodrow Wilson).



Don’t be too hard on him. TR Senior’s wife came from a wealthy Southern family, and she herself was one of the leading Confederate supporters in New York. It’s easy to conclude TR Sr. was convinced by his wife not to fight against her family.

Grover Cleveland still holds the record for the most vetoes by a two-term President (that is, by any president except FDR). He got it by vetoing the earmark equivalent of his era–private bills to grant pensions to Civil War veterans who had been turned away by the Pension Bureau.

Historians tend to agree that the vetoes were justified–in those days, it was understood that you only got a pension if you were disabled in the line of duty, and the Pension Bureau was the proper forum to evaluate such claims. Nevertheless, they made Cleveland look like an skinflint to Union veterans. (They did play well in the South, for obvious reasons.)

Like many Presidents from Jefferson through Bush, Cleveland became wildly unpopular during his second term. The economy crashed and there was nothing he could do about it. He continued to support the gold standard, even as bimetallist Populists took over the Democratic Party in 1896. Cleveland was the last of the Nineteenth Century Bourbon conservative Democrats.

Then, of course, there was “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”. A few days before the election, Blaine attended a campaign meeting in a New York City hotel. One of the speakers there, Rev. Samuel Burchard, called the Democrats the “party of rum, Romanism, and rebellion”. This got widely reported, and the weekend before the election, Catholic priests in New York City preached sermons denouncing Burchard, Blaine, and the Republicans, and urging their parishoners to make sure to vote for the Democrats.

Wasn’t there another president who was married literally in the White House, but before he became President? FDR comes to mind.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were married in NYC, I believe. I can’t think of any other future President who was married in the White House, although future U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb, who married Lynda Bird Johnson there in 1967 while still a Marine officer, was said from time to time to have ambitions in that direction.

To amplify on your point… Buchanan, a Democrat, was elected in 1856. FDR was elected in 1932. In between, only two Democrats were elected president. The Republicans won 14 of 18 elections.

Interesting puzzler from Car Talk:

Cleveland succeeded his successor, Benjamin Harrison. Which other US President succeeded his successor?

The answer is a bit of a cheat:

Harrison succeeded his successor, Cleveland because Harrison succeeded Cleveland, who would eventually become his successor.

This sounds more impressive than it really is. To understand this seeming dominance you have to break it down election by election.

The Democrats should have been finished as a party by the Civil War. In the 1860 election they had already broken into a southern wing, running John C. Breckinridge for president, and a northern wing, running Stephen Douglas. Andrew Johnson’s incompetence notwithstanding, no Democrat was going to win in 1868 and running the greatest hero in the country, Ulysses S. Grant, sealed the deal. Even so, he only won by five percentage points in the popular vote.

The corruption in Grant’s administration and a major recession that hit in 1873 ensured that the Democrats, who should have been out of power for a generation, would win in 1876. And they did. Samuel Tilden beat Rutherford Hayes by a full three percentage points in the popular vote. Assuming that any of the popular vote counts can be trusted. Both parties stole, cheated, and committed massive fraud, so much so that three full states’ electoral votes were disputed. A fifteen member Electoral Commission finally decided the matter. Surprise, surprise. It consisted of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats. Guess who won? Most historians are convinced that the Democrats threw the results to end Reconstruction. If so, this was the most corrupt bargain in our country’s corrupt history.

Hayes stepped down after one term and the Republicans won in 1880 by nominating Garfield as someone who stood for anti-corruption. Garfield got shot only a few months into his term, making Chester A. Arthur president. Arthur was the least qualified VP of all time and an enemy of the dominant wing of his own party. The party dumped him for James Blaine. Blaine almost won, but dumping your own president is a bad move. And it was more than past time for the Democrats. Cleveland won in 1884.

Cleveland made the mistake of being against tariffs at a time when the industrializing north demanded them. He also was a foe of Tammany Hall, the New York political machine. Though he won the popular vote, he lost the entire north including New York. If he won his home state, he’d have been re-elected.

Harrison was a non-entity. Cleveland won New York in 1892 and dominated the electoral college.

It was the Republican’s turn to win in 1896. The Democrats contributed by nominating William Jennings Bryan who couldn’t win in the industrialized states where all the electoral votes were. So they ran him again in 1900 and lost even worse.

That meant 1904 would be the Democrats’ year. Except that McKinley got shot in 1901 and the fantastically popular Theodore Roosevelt became the accidental president, won election in 1904 and got his protégé William Howard Taft to win in 1908.

Taft was another non-entity and so Woodrow Wilson won in 1912. This was eight years later than the Democrats “should” have won but an assassin’s bullet changed history in a big way.

The Democrats were played out in 1920 and another non-entity, Warren G. Harding, won a huge victory. Corruption should have tossed him out in 1924 but again history played with us and he died in 1923, so close to the beginning of the election campaign that Calvin Coolidge was kept in office. That beings us to 1928. The Democrats nominated an eastern liberal Catholic in Al Smith. Smith couldn’t have won over Bryan and didn’t have a chance while the economy was still good. He lost by 18 percentage points. Four years later Hoover was the one who lost by 18 percentage points.

Note the pattern. Presidential cycles since the Civil War have almost always swung back and forth between the parties every eight years. Corruption and a changing economy almost always means that the country tires of one party after two terms in control. If something outside that ordinary process disrupts the cycle, though, the out party is out of luck. That doesn’t mean that the lucky party is any better or more popular than the unlucky one. Just luckier.

And it really does smooth itself out over the long term. There were 25 presidential elections from 1900 to 1996. Republicans won 13; Democrats won 12. Honestly, we are a centrist country.

For all those should-haves, ought-tos and ordinarily-would-haves, anson2995 is still correct. The GOP was remarkably dominant in presidential politics from 1860-1932, more so, I think, than any other party over any other 72-year timespan in U.S. history.

It wasn’t that Taft was a non-entity so much as that Roosevelt’s entry into the race drew progrssive Republicans away from Taft.