Thursday, October 19, 2023

Guest Post: June 24, 1908 - AH obituary for Grover the Good

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History with input from Allen W. McDonnell and John P. Braungart.

Grover Cleveland aka 'Uncle Jumbo' and 'Grover the Good', passed away at his estate, Westland Mansion, in Princeton, New Jersey, aged seventy-one. At the time of his death he remained the only member of the Democratic Party to be elected President since the Civil War.

In the years before his election as the 22nd and then 24th US President, Cleveland served as the Sheriff of Erie County, where one of his duties was to carry out the hanging of a convicted murderer. Also, he was elected mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, winning fame as an anti-corruption crusader. His fight against political corruption, patronage, and bossism convinced many like-minded Republicans, called "Mugwumps", to cross party lines and support him in the 1884 election.

As the White House incumbent, Cleveland was at the very center of tumultuous events during the contested presidential election of 1888. Cleveland won a plurality of the popular vote, but his Republican opponent Benjamin Harrison handily won the Electoral College by a margin of 65. Most controversial of all was the Republican victory in Indiana, largely as the result of a fraudulent voting practice known as Blocks of Five. The elections in 1888 and 1892 were the first time incumbents were defeated in consecutive elections (the second would be Jimmy Carter's defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976, followed by Carter's subsequent loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980).

Dysfunctional government was fueled by the lasting anger at corruption and scandal. The dispute rolled into the 51st United States Congress in which Democrats, supported by Mugwumps, retaliated by electing Cleveland as the first ever non-member Speaker of the House of Representatives. But this dangerous step, only intended as a one-off backlash really created a whole new precedent. The bipartisan convention was changed, and from then on as a matter of tradition, when a party in control of the House lost the Presidential race, they elected the loser as Speaker of House.

In the view of bipartisans, this fracture was caused by contradictions inherent in the U.S. Constitution and required widespread reform including the scrapping of the Electoral College. However, naysayers dismissed the national popular vote as outdated and irrelevant.

Author's Note:

In reality, Cleveland continued his duties diligently until the end of the term and began to look forward to returning to private life. He is the only President to have split two terms with Harrison holding office in between. Today, he is praised for honesty, integrity, adherence to his morals, defying party boundaries, and effective leadership and is typically ranked among the upper half to middle tier of U.S. presidents. Meanwhile, the House has never been led by a non-member and experts such as the Congressional Research Service consider it unlikely in the near future despite speculation surrounding Donald Trump. He is bidding to repeat Cleveland's success in 1892 when he defeated Harrison in both popular and electoral votes, thus becoming the first (and, as of 2017, the only) former president to successfully get his job back.

Provine's Addendum:

The "Speaker from the Shadows" tradition became an important part of Washington social norms, especially as it was not a mandated part of constitutional government but an expectation. Benjamin Harrison himself served as Speaker of the House in 1895 during Cleveland's second term, stepping away from teaching law at Stanford. William Jennings Bryan eagerly accepted the position during the Taft administration in 1911. Charles Evans Hughes, who nearly defeated Wilson in 1916, gained the position in 1919, and expected to ride the popularity to another bid for president in 1920, only to have the nomination seized by Harding instead. Al Smith came into the Speaker position in 1928 under Hoover, hinting the change of public opinion toward the Democrats, who would control both the legislative and executive branches of government until Thomas Dewey famously refused the position to continue as governor of New York (an act that many blamed for his loss again in 1948). Adlai Stevenson accepted the position during the Eisenhower administration, establishing numerous social programs. Former presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter both served terms as Speaker of the House with Johnson seeming much more comfortable back in Congress and Carter eager to advise on social programs in the era of Reaganomics. Johnson turned over the reins to McGovern, while Carter would similarly hand the position to Mondale. The "Democrats in Congress, Republicans in the White House" reversed in the 1990s with George H.W. Bush's short time in Congress before retiring.

During the 2000 election, when Al Gore narrowly defeated George W. Bush, some political commentators mentioned the old "electoral college" that had been scrapped in the late nineteenth century and how it could've meant a victory for Bush instead of taking over what had once been his father's seat as Speaker of the House. Most people ignored the dusty old idea or laughed right out at it. After John McCain's service as Speaker of the House during Obama's first term and then return to the senate, Donald Trump became the next Speaker of the House of note during Hilary Clinton's administration. Trump's rhetoric was as fiery as any Speaker before him, and he brought the Electoral College back to the forefront of American thought. With it, he would have won by an enormous margin, and social media fired up with periodic demands to bring it back. Following Trump's second loss in 2020, he returned to the House again as speaker in 2022 with more demands for reform of America's electoral system.

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