Magazine | December 21, 2015, Issue

The GOP’s Spirit of ’96

The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, by Karl Rove (Simon & Schuster, 496 pp., $32.50)

He was a man of modest birth and a longtime Ohio congressman, with a passion for fiscal policy and a driving ambition for the White House. He sought to expand the appeal of his party by reaching out to immigrants and labor. And he became governor of his battleground state while laying the groundwork for a presidential run.

The above description is not of John Kasich, but of William McKinley. Yet one can imagine that the current governor of Ohio will attempt — however vainly — to find hope and inspiration in the pages of this fine new study of the 25th president and his election in 1896.

President George W. Bush, in the speech he delivered upon his reelection in November 2004, lauded Karl Rove as “the architect” of his victory. And now Rove has cast his eyes back upon another Republican triumph more than a century ago: the ascension of McKinley to the presidency and the subsequent Republican domination of that office (Woodrow Wilson’s two terms aside) for the next few decades. Rove’s hopes that his own chief’s elevation would lead to an era of GOP dominance are as yet unfulfilled, but he proves a reliable guide to the machinations of Gilded Age politics.

There is no doubt that Rove is a McKinley man. Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s assistant secretary of the Navy and second vice president, famously raged that his boss had “all the backbone of a chocolate éclair,” but the author sees much to admire in the staid and steady president. McKinley may have lacked the dynamism and charisma of his successor, but he emerges from these pages as a shrewd, decent, and kindly man, brave in battle and solicitous of his invalid wife. Known always as “the Major,” the title he cherished most, McKinley was the last Civil War veteran to be elected president.

Rove makes a few scattered references to recent political developments, and some of his historical judgments are freighted with contemporary meaning. His observation that the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 “involved a dispute about Florida’s results that lasted for months” elicits a chuckle, and his repeated observation that in the Gilded Age and beyond “the GOP would win national elections only if it gained support from new ethnic immigrant laborers” could come from a talking head on cable news, which, as it happens, Rove is. But his focus is largely on the 19th century, not the 21st. And while it is good to seek guidance from history, the novelist L. P. Hartley was correct when he observed, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Indeed, as Rove observes, “politics during McKinley’s lifetime was practiced with an intensity difficult to comprehend today.” Readers may be surprised that issues as seemingly abstruse as the tariff and the currency could inflame the passions of millions of Americans. But in an era before the Super Bowl or stadium concerts, politics furnished not just an arena of ideological combat but entertainment as well.

Protection had been a point of bitter contention since before the Civil War, and the peace at Appomattox did not settle the matter. Long after slavery was abolished, the issue of whether industry should grow and develop behind a shield of high tariffs still divided the nation. Conservatives today might look askance at McKinley’s tireless championing of tariffs — he was known as the “Napoleon of Protection” — but such policy was Republican dogma throughout the latter half of the 19th century. In championing protection, McKinley followed in the footsteps of Lincoln. Even during the last Republican administration, President Bush temporarily imposed steel tariffs in 2002, a decision made largely for domestic political reasons (and with which the book’s author was deeply involved).

And whereas now we breathlessly await the decrees of the Federal Reserve regarding monetary policy, the debate over how much money would be in circulation (and its consequent value) was then fought out in the political arena. The stakes were high for indebted farmers and laborers and for the bankers who held their notes. Rove ably and clearly explains the debate between “hard money” advocates, who believed the currency should be pegged to the price of gold, and those who supported a “soft money” policy of minting vast numbers of silver coins and inflating the currency.

By the time McKinley entered the race for the White House, currency had become the dominant issue. His Democratic opponent would declare that while “protection has slain its thousands the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands.” On this issue, McKinley was far from Napoleonic — his Ohio constituency was divided on the issue, and throughout his career he attempted to straddle it.

Much has been made of Theodore Roosevelt as the first modern president, but Rove convincingly shows that it was McKinley who helped usher presidential politics into the modern age. Long before his “front porch” campaign in 1896, McKinley barnstormed the country to an unprecedented degree. With the help of Mark Hanna — his wealthy friend, fellow Ohioan, and political manager — McKinley eschewed a regional strategy and plotted a national effort. In state after state, they organized, in what Rove calls “the Gilded Age equivalent of the presidential primary season, not elections open to party members or voters, but a multi-stage series of local, district, and state conventions.”

But in 1896, he faced an opponent who paid even less regard to historical precedent. William Jennings Bryan had raised the roof of the Democratic convention with his theatrical speech that concluded with words that have rung down through political history: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” Known as the “Boy Orator,” he was at 36 only one year over the constitutional age requirement for the presidency, and his national political experience was limited to a mere two terms in the House of Representatives. But his rhetorical gifts and boundless energy captured the imagination of his party, which then as now viewed the rich as a suspect class. According to Rove, his outlook was “bleak and gloomy,” and he viewed America “as a country divided between the many poor and the wealthy few, between good and evil.” (If Kasich dreams of being a latter-day McKinley, Bernie Sanders must be channeling Bryan.)

Rove narrates the general-election campaign in vivid detail, deftly outlining the issues and bringing to life the spectacle of 19th-century politics. He admiringly quotes McKinley’s calls for unity — as when he declared, “We are all citizens of a common country . . . equal citizens in privilege and opportunity” — and contrasts them favorably with Bryan’s dark and apocalyptic rhetoric. The “one nation” message won out: McKinley triumphed in the Electoral College with 271 votes to Bryan’s 176.

Unfortunately for McKinley’s historical reputation, he had a man of destiny directly behind him. When Mark Hanna despairingly cried to his colleagues at the 1900 convention that renominated McKinley and chose Theodore Roosevelt for vice president — “Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the presidency?” — he was eerily prescient. The assassin who killed McKinley early in his second term also guaranteed that the flamboyant Roosevelt would overshadow his slain predecessor. Rove has done an admirable job of putting a historical spotlight on a once-beloved leader, reminding us that McKinley led his country into the 20th century in more than just the literal sense.

But Rove’s central thesis remains open to question: Does the election of 1896 still matter? According to Rove, the party that McKinley led to victory that year “was a frothy, diverse coalition of owners and workers, longtime Americans and new citizens, lifetime Republicans and fresh converts drawn together by common beliefs and allegiances.” It is clear that the author would like to see his party fit this description again, but sluggish economic growth and fury over illegal immigration have sparked a populist revolt against the Republican elite. Cultural, economic, and political divisions — driven largely by mass immigration, assortative mating, and the growing desire of people to live only among those like themselves — have made unity seem a distant dream. The mainstream politicians in the presidential race languish in relative obscurity, while the fiery demagogue Donald Trump remains at the top of the polls. Rove believes that McKinley’s campaign “provides lessons either party could use today to end an era of a 50–50 nation and gain the edge for a durable period.” That might be true, but for the moment the McKinley playbook appears not to be in fashion.

– Mr. Bishop is the corporate-communications manager of Strategic Investment Group. He has held several posts on Capitol Hill and in the White House and is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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