My esteemed friend the historian Michael Kazin has an interesting article up at TNR suggesting that the last U.S. president whose world-view and agenda most matched that of Mitt Romney was the Gilded Age Bourbon Democrat Grover Cleveland. He makes a pretty good case:
As President, Cleveland took several opportunities to denounce those Americans who, as Mitt Romney expressed it to his donors in Boca Raton, expected the government to provide them with the necessities of life. In 1887, he vetoed a bill that earmarked $10,000 to buy seed for drought-stricken farmers in Texas. “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution,” Cleveland explained in his veto message, “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.” He then added a pithy note of pedagogy: “The lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”
Yep, Grover was a true “constitutional conservative,” and favored public austerity in all circumstances:
To Cleveland’s misfortune, an economic depression began soon after he was inaugurated a second time, and it lasted for the duration of his term….
But the misery of his countrymen and women did nothing to shake Cleveland’s laissez-faire convictions. He refused to support any relief measure and instead urged Congress to reaffirm the gold standard, which he thought would lead inflation-wary businessmen to start hiring again. In 1894, when railroad workers stopped trains around the country in a sympathy boycott, Cleveland dispatched the U.S. Army to break the strike and persuaded a court to put the leaders of the protest in jail. His job, Cleveland might have said, was “not to worry about those people.” After all, he would “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
It’s no accident that Cleveland was the favorite U.S. president of Paul Ryan’s intellectual mentor Ayn Rand. And Grover appealed to a lot of the same kinds of people:
[H]is party’s base was remarkably similar to that of the GOP today: white Southerners from all classes and white workers everywhere who did not belong to unions. The Democrat’s standard-bearer ALSO expressed doubt that any “sensible and responsible” woman would ever want to vote.
There is one big difference, however: Cleveland was a man of extraordinarily inflexible views who prided himself on personal integrity.
You’d pretty much have to create an amalgam of Cleveland and Nixon to get close to a real precedent for Mitt.