The Grover Cleveland of Our Time

As a historian and admirer of Grover Cleveland, I have been on the hunt for a modern-day version of the 22nd and 24th President, someone with like qualities who could clean up the growing, and seemingly insurmountable, mess in Washington.  I now believe that man is quietly emerging in the state of New Jersey.  Governor Chris Christie, with less than a year in office, is now on the lips of many conservatives who are seeking new leadership for the 2012 presidential race.

Neil Cavuto of Fox News recently asked Governor Christie about a possible White House run, pointing out that Woodrow Wilson became President after serving as governor of New Jersey.

“I’m not Woodrow Wilson,” the governor said.  “I think nobody could confuse me with Woodrow Wilson.”

Conservatives in New Jersey may thank God for that.  Chris Christie is nothing like the progressive Wilson, but he can be compared to another reform governor, the Jeffersonian Grover Cleveland, the only president born in the Garden State.

There are amazing similarities between Cleveland and Christie – both from New Jersey – Cleveland born in Caldwell in 1837, Christie in Newark in 1962; both big, burly men of similar build; both governors – Christie of his home state of New Jersey, Cleveland of his adopted state of New York; both lawyers by trade; both politically conservative; both with combative, confrontational styles; and both with the political courage to say what they believe without fear, to take on powerful, entrenched special interests, and to never back down from a fight.

Before the governorship, Cleveland served as mayor of Buffalo, where he fought mass corruption in city government.  In his lone year in office, he saved the city over a million dollars in frivolous spending, a huge amount of money in 1882.  State Democrats took notice of Mayor Cleveland’s reform efforts, which propelled him to the statehouse in Albany.

Christie served as a U.S. Attorney from 2002 until 2008 and fought corruption in one of the most corrupt of states.  He successfully prosecuted 130 dishonest public officials, of both parties, without losing a single case.  The New Jersey Star Ledger called it an “impressive resume” and Christie was praised across the state, a record of achievement that helped carry him to Trenton.

While governor, Cleveland took on the forces of big government and the entrenched special interests of his day, namely the infamous Tammany Hall political machine in New York City.  To defy Tammany Hall was the surest way to lose one’s political shirt.  Cleveland never hesitated.  And he won.

Christie has also fought big government, taking on one of the most powerful special interest groups in New Jersey, the unions, particularly those supporting teachers.  Rather than capitulate to the unions, Christie has taken them on.  And if he stands his ground, he will win.

As governor, Cleveland vetoed 200 bills in two years, upholding the state’s constitution and protecting taxpayers.  Just as he had done as mayor, Governor Cleveland ended the “business-as-usual” mentality in the New York capital and brought needed change and reform.

Christie has also changed the political culture in Trenton, aggressively wielding the veto pen to kill measures that boosted spending and taxes.  Governor Christie recently vetoed a tax hike on millionaires, the so-called “success tax,” just two minutes after it passed the legislature.  He needed no time to decide what he believed about the issue.  He has consistently defied a state legislature that is insistent on more government and higher taxes.

Both men possess similar styles.  Cleveland was criticized because he was confrontational.  In an age before modern mass media outlets, Cleveland laced his veto messages with hard-hitting, and often sarcastic, commentary directed at legislators.  He was not afraid to say who he was and what he believed.

Neither is Christie.  Like Cleveland, Christie has taken heat for his “confrontational tone.”  But he will not back down, stating his positions “directly, straightly, bluntly,” as he said in a recent press conference, “and nobody in New Jersey is gonna have to wonder where I am on an issue.”

Both also expressed a similar reluctance to be considered for President of the United States.  Unlike Governor Woodrow Wilson, who earnestly desired the presidency and pursued it in 1912, Cleveland and Christie shunned the White House.

“I have but one ambition,” Governor Cleveland said in 1884, “and that is to make a good governor and do something for the people of the State.”  He wanted to be governor of New York and an “offer of a second term will satisfy any wish I can possibly entertain, at all related to political life.”

Christie’s reluctance is nearly identical to Cleveland’s.  “I want to be governor of New Jersey.  I ran for governor of New Jersey.  I want to do this job for as long as the people want me to do it,” he told Neil Cavuto.  “I am ready to do the best job I can for the people of this state.  I want to serve the people of the state where I was born and raised,” he continued.  “You have to be really in your gut, and in your heart, ready to be President of the United States if you decide to run for that. And I simply do not have the desire to do it, nor do I think I’m ready,”

Such disinclination might depress some conservatives, but this is precisely the kind of person we need in a President, one who does not earnestly seek the job, exactly the way the Founders desired it.  In Grover Cleveland’s day, it was very unfashionable to pursue the presidency.  To desire it meant you had only mischief in mind.  The office should seek the man.  Not the other way around.

Democrats drafted Cleveland to run for the White House in 1884, after only one and a half years as governor, and he acquiesced.  The nation needed him, he was told.

Cleveland did not actively seek the nomination at the national convention but would accept it if it came his way.  “Every consideration which presents itself to me tends to the personal wish on my part that the wisdom of the Democratic Party in the coming convention may lead to a result not involving my nomination for the Presidency,” he wrote a friend.  “If, however, it should be otherwise and I should be selected as the nominee, my sense of duty to the people of my party would dictate my submission to the will of the convention.”

The result was a two-term presidency that greatly benefited the nation.  President Cleveland brought needed reforms to Washington, serving as the last Jeffersonian president.  He stopped lavish spending, cut taxes, protected the Treasury’s surplus, maintained the gold standard, fought inflation, resisted big government solutions to a financial panic by employing laissez faire policies, helped saved the West from exploitation, and held firm against the growing imperialist tide then rising across the country.  Grover Cleveland accepted the call and served the American people well.

For the good of the nation, let’s hope Governor Chris Christie will do likewise.


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