Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Fine Art of Compromise ... and Lost Opportunity

"The trusts and combinations — the communism of pelf — whose machinations have prevented us from reaching the success we deserve should not be forgotten nor forgiven."

Letter from Grover Cleveland to Rep. Thomas C. Catchings (D–Miss.)
August 27, 1894

I have mentioned here that I have been studying the presidency most of my life.

And Grover Cleveland has always fascinated me. He always stood out because he was — and still is — the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. (He was also president half a century before presidents were limited to two terms — so, presumably, he could have sought a third term in 1896, but his party repudiated him. More on that in a minute.)

I have found it fascinating, too, to observe all the different presidents in American history to whom Barack Obama has been compared.

That didn't really begin with Obama. Incoming presidents are almost always compared to presidents from the past. I don't know why. Maybe to try to get an idea of what to expect. There have been no other black presidents so Obama couldn't be compared to anyone on a racial level.

When he was about to take the oath of office for the first time, Obama was compared, at different times and for different reasons, to great presidents from American history like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lincoln, of course, was a natural, having presided over the Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. There were some comparisons, as well, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, mostly because FDR had taken office during the most perilous economic period in the nation's history, even to John F. Kennedy, perhaps because both were young and their elections made history.

Over the course of his presidency, Obama has been compared to less accomplished presidents. In recent years, it has frequently been asked if he is more incompetent than Jimmy Carter, who is generally regarded as the most incompetent president in recent memory.

Six years ago, about three weeks before Obama took the oath of office the first time, political scientist Michael Barone suggested that Dwight Eisenhower might be the more appropriate comparison, and I wrote about that.

Barone's point was that Eisenhower had done little to help his fellow Republicans, many of whom "grumbled that Ike ... was selfish.

"Eisenhower, I suspect, regarded himself as a unique national figure,"
Barone wrote, "and believed that maximizing his popularity far beyond his party's was in the national interest."

I was reminded of that tonight when I heard Obama's speech on immigration. Many congressional Democrats are supporting the president — publicly, at least — but some are not. Regardless of the negative ramifications of his executive order — and a poll conducted Wednesday night indicates that nearly half of respondents oppose Obama's acting via executive order — Obama seems determined to prove that he is still relevant.

Coming a mere two weeks after Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate in the midterm elections, it seems to me a president who was more concerned about his party's future than his own would act more prudently. Bill Clinton, after all, lost control of both chambers of Congress in the midterms of 1994, and Democrats didn't regain the majority in either chamber for 12 years.

Clinton did manage to retake some his party's lost ground when he ran for re–election in 1996 and then again after surviving an attempt by the Republicans to impeach him before the 1998 midterms, defying all logic.

I've always felt that a lot of that was because Clinton was appropriately chastened by his party's massive losses in the midterms. I felt, at the time, that many of the voters who had voted Republican in 1994 believed Clinton had learned an important lesson and were more open to supporting him and the members of his party in 1996.

Obama has now been through two disastrous midterm elections, and he has emerged from the second not chastened but defiant. He appears to be entirely ready to do everything on his own, completely ignoring the role that the Founding Fathers intended for Congress to play. An opportunity to let compromise and cooperation be what the Founding Fathers envisioned in their fledgling republic is being squandered.

Once such an opportunity is lost, once such a president takes this kind of approach, it is hard, if not impossible, to establish a rapport with the other side.

Obama isn't the first to do this, which brings me back to Grover Cleveland. A little background information is called for here.

Cleveland was first elected president in 1884. He was the first Democrat elected to the office in more than a quarter of a century — in spite of the revelation that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock. It was close, but Cleveland managed to pull it off.

Four years later, when Cleveland sought a second term, conditions were good. The nation was at peace, and the economy was doing pretty well, but there was division over the issue of tariff policy. The election was another cliffhanger. Cleveland again won the popular vote by a narrow margin, but his opponent, Benjamin Harrison, received enough electoral votes to win.

So Cleveland left the White House in March 1889, but he returned as the Democratic nominee in 1892 and defeated Harrison. It was the second time a major party nominated someone for president three straight times. The first one, Andrew Jackson, also won the popular vote all three times; like Cleveland, though, he was denied the presidency once because he lost the electoral vote.

Perhaps it was the experience of having been returned to the White House after losing the electoral vote four years earlier that contributed to Cleveland's messianic complex. To be fair, it would be hard not to feel that there was an element of historical inevitability at work.

But that doesn't really excuse how Cleveland approached the outcome of the 1894 midterms.

One cannot tell the story of the 1894 midterms without telling the story of the Panic of 1893 for it defined Cleveland's second term as well as the midterms. It was the worst economic depression the United States had experienced up to that time. Unemployment in America was about 3% when Cleveland was elected in 1892. After a series of bank failures, it ballooned into double figures in 1893 and stayed there for the remainder of Cleveland's term.

The depression was a key factor in the debate over bimetallism in 1894. Cleveland and his wing of the Democratic Party were known as "bourbon Democrats," supporters of a kind of laissez–faire capitalism. They supported the gold standard and opposed bimetallism, in which both gold and silver are legal tender.

The economy was already the main topic of the campaign, and a major coal strike in the spring didn't help. In fact, it hammered the fragile economies of the states in the Midwest and the Northeast. Republicans blamed Democrats for the poor economy, and the argument found a receptive audience.

Republicans gained House seats just about everywhere except the Southern states, which remained solidly Democratic, and states where Republicans already held all the House seats. Democrats went from a 220–106 advantage to a 104–226 deficit. It remains the most massive shift in House party division in U.S. history.

Under circumstances such as these, a president has two choices — he can be conciliatory and try to move to the political center, as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan did, or he can dig in his heels and be even more intransigent.

Much as Obama is doing 120 years later, Cleveland chose the latter approach after the midterms in 1894. Perhaps he felt he had no allies in Washington anymore, but I've always felt his go–it–alone approach was a big reason why he was repudiated by the Democrats in 1896. The fragmented party chose instead to go with William Jennings Bryan, who would be nominated three times and lose each time. In fact, with the exception of the Woodrow Wilson presidency, no Democrat would win the White House for the next 36 years.

For that matter, they didn't regain the majority in the House until the 1910 midterms, but they lost that majority six years later in spite of the fact that President Wilson was at the top of the ballot. It took the stock market crash of 1929 to restore Democrats to majority status in the House in the midterms of 1930.

That is one cautionary tale that emerges from this year's midterms. Another is the exaggerated importance given to the turnout. I know it is a popular excuse to use after a party has been slammed in the midterms, but it is misleading.

In 2006, when Democrats retook the majority in both chambers for the first time in 12 years, they treated it as a mandate for change. But roughly the same number of voters participated in 2006 as participated in 2014. Granted, there has been an increase in the overall population in those eight years so the share of registered voters who participated is different, but the overall numbers are the same.

Republicans, too, pointed to low turnout in 2006. My advice to them would be not to duplicate the Democrats' mistake. They believed their success was permanent — and it never is in politics.

It can last longer, though, if you lead.

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