It’s Neither Obama Nor Bush
By Dan O’Connor
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN — Where will the Occupy Wall Street protesters turn if they want to translate their outrage into electoral politics?
Cynics across the political spectrum have predicted that the Occupiers will just end up turning into Obama voters by the time elections arrive in November — even though Obama has shepherded the bailouts that the Occupiers so despise. Many of the Occupiers themselves claim they reject our entire political system and do not want to be beholden to any political party or even the current rules of democracy.
For the past few months, they have occupied places like Zuccotti Park, close to the electoral district where I’m running for U.S. Congress, and they have experimented there with new models of governing — their “General Assemblies” and reliance on “consensus” instead of a majority vote.
But if they choose to occupy voting booths later this year, they may be frustrated by their limited choices. Most politicians on both sides of the aisle support government-corporate collusion, leading to things like the bank bailouts and the Federal Reserve’s increasingly desperate attempts to manipulate currency and the economy.
I suggest there is a Democratic president from whom the Occupiers — and all modern politicians — could learn a great deal, both about sound money and resisting the urge to bail out faltering businesses even in hard times. He’s not in the White House right now — in fact, he passed away in 1908 — but he was president for two non-consecutive terms. And he was a Democrat from New York.
I refer, of course, to Grover Cleveland.
Faced with great popular pressure to devalue American currency, Cleveland steadfastly stuck to the gold standard — even as he lost the Democratic nomination to candidate William Jennings Bryan (the populist orator who denounced the “Cross of Gold” on which plutocrats ostensibly wanted to crucify the poor and indebted farmers).
Faced with economic downturns, Cleveland rejected the idea that government should bail out struggling farmers, in terms that are almost unimaginable today, when even the wealthy expect to receive subsidies. Vetoing an 1887 farmer bailout, he wrote, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and 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...[T]hough the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”
Reasonable people can disagree about how best to aid the worst off — whether and when government aid might be necessary to supplement private charity. But what makes Cleveland a shining example in our era of massive stimulus spending and crony capitalism is his starting assumption that the federal government should err on the side of frugality — and err on the side of sticking to the limited powers ascribed to it by the Constitution.
By contrast, in the 21st century, we have heard a Republican president say, “When someone is hurting, government has got to move.” And judging by the bailouts Bush began just before leaving office, he meant the very wealthy when he said “someone.” President Obama has added trillions in stimulus spending while continuing the Bush bailouts. Grover Cleveland would be appalled.
But then, Cleveland had reason to be appalled even within his own lifetime. By the time he passed away, although government at all levels was still tiny by today’s standards — about 8 percent of the gross domestic product then vs. more than 40 percent today — the philosophy behind government’s relationship to business had changed.
The Progressive Era had begun, and both major political parties believed that government should be an active partner with business — especially big business — working to mold the economy. Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Democrats like Woodrow Wilson shared this view. It is still taken for granted in the corridors of power — from the White House and Congress, to the Fed and corporate boardrooms — a century later.
Bailouts and cronyism, however unfair and un-Progressive they are, had become almost inevitable.
Until all of us — the Occupiers, the Tea Partiers, Republicans and my fellow Democrats — rediscover the wisdom of Grover Cleveland and unlearn some of the big-government assumptions that have prevailed since the Progressive Era, our economic and political fates will continue to be decided not in our own homes — nor in Zuccotti Park — but in meetings between politicians beholden to corporations and corporate executives beholden to politicians.
Bailing you out will never be at the top of their agenda.
Dan O’Connor is running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Congress in New York’s 12th District, which includes portions of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. The district is currently represented by Nydia Velazquez.