Cleveland was mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York before winning, then losing and then winning the presidency between 1884 and 1892. His nomination was seconded by a Civil War hero, Gen. Edward Bragg of Wisconsin, who stirred the 1884 Democratic convention in Chicago when he noted that Cleveland’s supporters “love him most of all for the enemies he has made.” Sound familiar?
Cleveland’s battles within his own party and against the Republicans over the next dozen years have little to do with the politics of today. There may, however, be a lesson or two for Trump in Cleveland’s coming, going and coming again.
Cleveland arrived in the White House after a scandal nearly derailed his campaign. Though a bachelor until age 49, he had fathered a child earlier in life; and though the scandal nearly ended his bid for the White House, he survived the test. Four years later, Cleveland could not defeat Ohio’s Benjamin Harrison, who had fought in the Civil War, which Cleveland had bought his way out of.
Defeated, Cleveland retired to New York to practice law and enjoy the club life while keeping an eye on his successor’s difficulties, which were many. The Democrats welcomed Cleveland back to lead their ticket and win in 1892 against the hapless, colorless and widely derided Harrison.
At each of the four inaugurations in which he was a participant, Cleveland was a model of sportsmanship. He was present on the stage first as a winner, then as a vanquished president, returned to see Harrison off again and then finally to welcome his last successor, William McKinley, also of Ohio. Cleveland was a workaholic whose primary vice was as a trencherman of remarkable capacity. Otherwise, he was as dull in as many respects as Trump is controversial.
Out of office, Cleveland said little about his political rivals, preferring to wait until the battle was joined once more. Trump is unlikely to follow this course, but doing so would enable him to keep careful account of successes and failures of the Biden-Harris team before running on the latter.
Trump can also polish his own pillars of achievement: Operation Warp Speed, the Abraham Accords, the clearer view he fostered of the Chinese Communist Party as a repressive and reckless regime, and his restoration of the federal courts to a proper role of umpire rather than legislator.
Trump’s deregulation crusade may be subjected to siege by the incoming Democrats, but his court appointments will serve to check the wilder impulses of agencies not specifically empowered by Congress to make law.
Many doubt that Trump will be able to keep himself out of the day-to-day fray. Republicans running in 2022 will clamor for his endorsement and appearances. If he rations his interviews, he will always be in demand. His campaign committee will raise an astonishing amount of money — cash which is best curated with care and not spent until he returns to the battle. Memoirs and a presidential library and museum will help the next four years fly by. If he stays out of daily fights, his successes will grow in comparison to the deadlock ahead.
He will leave on Jan. 20 — no matter what the hysteria-minded insist is a clear and present danger of a coup. He will have satisfied his loyalists that he did everything within the law to preserve his tenure. Blue-check Twitter cannot be more aghast than it has been for years, so its cries of shattered norms are all just background noise to him.
His closest advisers — his family — know he will make his own choices without regard for columnists, consultants or captains of the party. As for 2024? Only Trump knows.