The conventional wisdom when it comes to the devastating storm called Hurricane Sandy, which is pounding the East Coast, is that if anyone is benefiting from this politically, it is Barack Obama. The reason for this, we are told, is because both candidates are suspending their campaigns through the storm, but the President will have daily opportunity to discuss the storm and act, “presidential.” Those who think Romney will benefit will argue that Obama’s campaign was on the ropes and although this prevents Romney from continuing to beat on the Obama presidency, it also prevents the President from fighting back. In addition, the areas hardest hit by the storms are, by and large, places that would vote for the President. With this pounding, the last thing on the mind of many of these will be going out to vote. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has a two to one advantage among those who describe themselves “most enthusiastic” about voting. I don’t see many of them deterred by “Frankenstorm.” In fact, I expect them to be emboldened by it as one final reminder of how difficult the Obama years have been even (as in this case) when it is no fault of his.
However, there is a way for both the candidates and the American people (particularly those hard hit by the storm) to benefit by the candidates’ campaigning. What if they were campaigning to raise money for the charities that help at the event of storms? What if they still hit the trail and told voters, “don’t give money to me, but to…” or, better still, “for each day this storm pounds the East Coast we will commit each dollar raised to help in the recovery of those states.” All of them could look very presidential and help a great cause. Furthermore, it would sever as a needed reminder of how the US has historically solved problems through barn raising rather than hand outs.
Such an approach could be the taking from the chapter of one of my favorite Presidents, Grover Cleveland. He is one that is largely neglected by the media and historians today, which are indicators of their own as being someone I would likely admire. He is the only President to not serve his terms sequentially, being both the 22nd (1885 to 1889) and 24th (1893 to 1897) President.
Cleveland was not driven by populist notions, but by principle. He saw serving in office as a sacred responsibility, stating that “Your every voter, as surely as your chief magistrate, exercises a public trust.” Cleveland was different in his style and substance. While today’s President’s were quick to make promises, Cleveland made commitments, stating “Though the people support the government; the government should not support the people.” He simply did not believe that philanthropy was the role of the federal government according to the US Constitution.
Cleveland was a stickler when it came to that Constitution and he set a hard standard for other Presidents to maintain. History showed that most would not. Dr. Burt Folsom, in his excellent book, New Deal or Raw Deal, pointed out that “In the 1800s, voluntary organizations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were formed to give food, shelter, clothing, and spiritual help to individuals and groups that faces crises. Sometimes, of course, Congress was tempted to play politics with relief. In 1887, for example, several counties in Texas faced a long drought and some farmers lost their crops. Texas politicians helped cajole Congress into granting $10,000 worth of free seeds for these distressed farmers in Texas. After the bill passed the Senate and House, Cleveland vetoed it, saying, ‘I can find no warrant for such an appropriating in the Constitution,’ Cleveland said. Such aid would ‘destroy the partitions between proper subjects of Federal and local care and regulation.’ He added, ‘Federal aid, in such cases, encourages the expectations of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.'” Cleveland believed the American people would not abandon its fellow citizens in the Lone Star state. Folsom noted Cleveland’s response, “the friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune.”
Cleveland could not be more accurate in his predictions. People not only gave, but did so at a level beyond the imagination of the Texas farmers and the politicians who represented them. Fellow Americans from all over the country gave gifts exceeding $100,000. That amount was more than ten times the amount Congress had tried to take from the taxpayers. The Founding Fathers never saw a “charity” role for government, that perspective was validated in both word and deed by Cleveland’s courageous veto and his belief in the American people.
Writer Lawrence W. Reed has noted that “Grover Cleveland proved an exceptional president, not because of the experience he brought to the federal government but because of two things that matter much more — character and principles.” This was seen in his decision to avoid the politically expedient in pursuit of what was right.
Politicians are not likely to do what I suggested because they would be afraid that voters would interpret that as meaning there “is no role for the federal government in such tragedies.” What a sad reason for not doing the next right thing.