Trump is trying to win a nonconsecutive term. Here’s how another president did it.

United States

The Biden-Trump rematch in the 2024 White House race has sparked all sorts of commentary — including references to the 1892 presidential election.

“This is the first election since 1892 that you’ve had back-to-back presidents facing off,” said Charlie Cook, founder and contributor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, in remarks at an economics conference earlier this year. “We all fondly remember Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison,” Cook joked. The 1890s aren’t an especially well-known decade, even among history buffs.

“When you’ve got back-to-back presidents, it’s a unique opportunity to do comparison shopping. It’s, like, put them next to each other,” the veteran political analyst said.

In 1892, Cleveland was a Democratic former president, having served from 1884 to 1888, while Harrison was the Republican incumbent who had defeated Cleveland four years earlier but would end up losing in their rematch. So Cleveland became the first — and so far only — U.S. president to serve nonconsecutive terms. 

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump is aiming to become the second president to win nonconsecutive terms as he runs against President Joe Biden. There are some similarities with Cleveland’s situation, along with some major differences. To dig into the possible history lessons for today’s voters ahead of the Biden-Trump debate on June 27, MarketWatch spoke with Troy Senik, the author of a Cleveland biography.

Senik’s book, “A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland,” was published in September 2022. Senik is the co-founder of a digital-media company, Kite & Key, and has worked for think tanks, other media companies and as a White House speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

MarketWatch: When Cleveland ran in 1892, to what extent did he benefit from voters remembering his successes but forgetting his failures? And do you sense any of that happening with Trump? It could be absence making the heart grow fonder — and the term “Trump amnesia” is getting thrown around.

Troy Senik: As you say, the dynamic with former presidents, it’s not unlike the dynamic with ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends. Enough time passes, and you tend to remember the good things and diminish the bad things a little bit.

There’s another dynamic that was at work with Cleveland, though, and it could be one that’s at work with Trump as well, which is that some of Cleveland’s shortcomings as a candidate in 1888 — the first time he ran for re-election — ended up helping him when he ran again in 1892. What I mean by that is Cleveland did something that as a matter of pure politics was pretty inadvisable in 1888: He ran his campaign almost entirely around the single issue of tariff reform. In 1888, tariff reform actually still split the Democratic Party to a degree. There was a protectionist faction of Democrats, even though they were — of the two parties — the one that was more open to reducing tariffs.

The things that happened in the intervening four years during the Harrison administration — when you had a big spike in tariffs and people started to feel the bite that took out of their finances — made it seem like an issue of much more import in 1892 than it was in 1888.

And in Cleveland’s first term, he was this intensely frugal president who cared about few things as much as being a good steward of taxpayer money. He was constantly vetoing legislation that he thought was an illegitimate use of taxpayer money. In the intervening years when he’s gone, you’ve got what’s called the “billion-dollar Congress,” which is the first time that Congress ever spends over a billion dollars. There’s a sense that they become very footloose and fancy-free in the way that they are spending.

So things that were defining features of Cleveland in his first term and the first time that he ran for re-election — that were not necessarily aligned with what the public cared about at the time — four years later became things that were actually at the forefront of the public’s attention. So he was a bit ahead of his time.

MarketWatch: Was Cleveland really ahead of his time or just lucky?

Senik: I say ahead of his time as if he was this grand visionary who could see where everything was going, which isn’t really how it happened. He had a series of immutable principles. He would have been this way even if the country had moved in the opposite direction. So it really comes down to a happy coincidence of right guy, right time.

MarketWatch: So what are some similarities in this vein with Trump today?

Senik: With the caveat that I’m much more of a specialist in history than analysis of current events, I think there are two fronts for Trump where you could see this happening. One is immigration, because Trump spent a lot of time talking about this in his first term. It also was something that at the time still had a fairly partisan sheen on it. It felt like Republicans really cared about this issue, and it wasn’t important for Democrats. What issue polling shows us at this point is that this is starting to bleed over into a thing that the whole country really cares about. So you can see a similar dynamic there.

Then the other one, perhaps a little more amorphously, is that the country — best I can tell — is operating off a sentiment that, well, the economy seemed pretty good in the Trump years, and people are more acutely concerned about the economy now with the intervening inflation. And I say that feeling, as a general matter, that we tend to give presidents too much credit when the economy is going well, and too much blame when it’s going badly.

MarketWatch: Could you explain briefly why tariffs were a big issue in Cleveland’s time?

Senik: The most important thing that I always tell people when I’m trying to give them the lay of the land for this era of American history is that the reason the disputes about tariffs were so significant is that they were the equivalent then of having arguments about income-tax levels today.

Now tariffs seem like a little bit of a sideshow — or at least they did before the Trump era, when there was a fairly robust consensus in a free-trade direction. But in Cleveland’s era, there is no income tax. We haven’t started the one that we’re going to live with, though there was a version of one during the Civil War.

So the fundamental questions of public finance at the federal level all run through tariffs. And as I said earlier, the Democratic Party of the era was the freer-trade of the two parties, even though it was not a uniform position. But it is important to note freer-trade, as opposed to free-trade. Cleveland wanted to lower tariff levels, but his position was never that we should drop them and go to a free-trade system, partially because the federal budget was so dependent on them. The idea was, we need to lower these to reduce the burden on the citizenry, but it was not that we need to just throw open the gates.

MarketWatch: Trump and Biden are both generally supportive of tariffs. On this issue, do we now have some similarities with 1892?

Senik: I would say it’s more similar today, actually, to the late 19th century than it is to our more recent history, when we had, prior to Trump, several decades where there seemed to be a pretty robust free-trade consensus in both parties.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden, shown here at a presidential debate in Cleveland in 2020, are set to debate again on June 27.

AFP via Getty Images

MarketWatch: Monetary policy was a big issue in Cleveland’s time, and it’s important now for Trump and Biden. In Cleveland’s case, there was no Federal Reserve yet, but the Free Silver movement was key. Could you briefly explain the silver SI00, +0.09% issue, and how Cleveland’s stance on it helped or hurt him in the 1892 election?

Senik: There was a real tension within the Democratic Party between the Eastern financial establishment and people out in the Midwest and the South. The Eastern financial establishment, with which Cleveland was aligned on this question, was really foursquare against significant expansion of silver in the money supply, because for them, currency stability was most important.

But for people in the South and the Midwest, a lot of whom were heavily in debt, there was a big push for silver as a way to inflate away a lot of that debt.

Cleveland doggedly cared about this issue and thought that it was a betrayal of the core principles of the Democratic Party to start inflating the currency DXY. Cleveland, whose background was as a lawyer, really thought of this in terms of the sanctity of contract. If you’re changing the base of the money supply, this is like you’re violating contracts left and right, because the terms that you’ve agreed to are now changing in the shadow of inflation.

He writes a letter preceding his 1892 campaign, laying this argument out, and it is regarded at the time as a kind of political suicide note, because this is such a deeply divisive issue within the party, and because the people who are in favor of expanding silver really seem like they are the ascendant faction. But the reason that it ended up helping him is, remember, you’re in 1892, you’re prior to presidential primaries. So the decision as to a nominee is being made at the convention by the party elders. And the party elders were heavily stacked with financial-establishment types. So Cleveland standing as a bulwark against this inflationary impulse was really key to getting him the nomination again in 1892.

Again, it’s a thing that he in a way lucked into. He really did not do this thinking that it would be to his political advantage. In fact, all of his staffers, everybody who had worked with him, begged him not to do this because they thought it was foreclosing the chance for him to run again, because it was so opposed to where the base of the party was.

MarketWatch: You mentioned the “billion-dollar Congress” earlier, and I’d like to ask more about increases in government spending. In our current White House race, neither Trump nor Biden can claim their presidential terms were truly all about fiscal discipline. Do you see any lessons from 1892 on the issue of spending and deficits, or have things changed too much, and maybe fiscal conservativism is dead?

Senik: There are two things at work there, one of which is very different from Cleveland’s era, and one of which is kind of the same. The part that’s different is Cleveland lived in an era that’s not that far removed from the Civil War, so there’s not only an impulse toward fiscal conservatism, there’s an impulse toward, “Why is the federal government doing this?” The federal government is held in much more suspicion in terms of what it’s going to spend on, or when it’s trying to break its constitutional moorings.

You saw some of that in the Reagan-era conservative movement, but I think it’s dying out in the Republican Party right now. That mindset — that it’s first and foremost local and state, and federal is sort of a distant third, and we always just kind of assume that anything they do is sort of a waste of money — is verging on extinction, at least as a major political force. Obviously, there are still people who think that way.

The part of spending that I think is kind of the same today, and it’s maybe just an ailment that is native to democracy, is that when people do get exercised about it, they get exercised about it after the fact. The Cleveland stuff really has the most purchase after the billion-dollar Congress does all the stuff that he had warned about. And that is a thing that you just see throughout the history of American democracy.

At a bus stop in Washington, D.C., last year, an electronic billboard displayed the national debt, which has since grown to above $ 34 trillion.

Getty Images for the Peter G. Peterson Foundation

MarketWatch: What would you say are the biggest differences between Cleveland’s 1892 candidacy and Trump’s now, and what are the biggest similarities?

Senik: Well, on the similarities, I would point back to the conversation we had earlier about some of the issues coming back around for them, because they’re not very similar people. So that dynamic is the only thing that you could find some similarities in.

The defining difference between them is that Cleveland is kind of at the end of the line for the Jeffersonian, limited-government Democrats of the 19th century. The party is changing underneath them, and he is a man already a little out of phase with where the party is. By the 1896 election, when he leaves, the Democratic convention that year is largely about beating up on him and moving beyond him.

Cleveland is almost like if you had the Republican Party of today, but their presidential candidate was Mitt Romney. He’s like the last vestige of the old order.

Trump is kind of a revolutionary within his party, and Cleveland was very much a counterrevolutionary.

MarketWatch: You mentioned Cleveland and Trump are not very similar people. How would you say they were different in terms of temperament?

Senik: Cleveland is an introvert. Cleveland is not flashy at all. Cleveland doesn’t like to speak in front of crowds, which at this point in American history you could actually get away with as president of the United States. He is a very workaholic lawyer in the years preceding when he runs for office.

He’s not a born entertainer. He doesn’t really have a lot of charisma. The way he approaches elected office is: These are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I’d be perfectly happy to lose on those principles.

One of Trump’s great gifts politically is there’s a real plasticity. He can kind of move around an issue to be wherever he needs to be on it. There are only a handful of things that he really seems to dig in on. And Cleveland was just the opposite.

So I just think that dispositionally, you actually would be hard pressed to find two people more different in the history of the presidency. Grover Cleveland and Donald Trump, they operate in the world in entirely different ways. They conceive of the world in entirely different ways.

Now read: Possible Trump pick for Treasury lays out 3-point economic plan that calls for deregulation, lower deficit

And see: Trump’s policies in a second term would be ‘substantially inflationary,’ Larry Summers says