Why McKinley's 1896 Election Is Relevant Today
You would never guess from the current campaign trail pyrotechnics, but public opinion polls suggest a straightforward formula for victory in the 2016 general election. Although a terrorist attack could instantly upend the logic of the race, the data show that presidential candidates from both parties would be well-advised to offer a credible plan to produce economic growth and generate more and better jobs—and make it the centerpiece of their campaigns. Doing so would necessitate tempering the demands of their respective bases, which is tricky because a candidate has to first secure his or her party’s nomination.
For the Democratic nominee that means moderating the progressive passion to increase government spending on entitlements and redistribute wealth. For the Republican nominee it involves circumscribing the social conservative defense of the traditional family and the rights of the unborn.
This takes some skill. Base voters, who dominate party primaries, don’t like to temper their demands. During the struggle for the nomination, they drive candidates to the extremes; then, in the general election, strive to prevent candidates from tacking to the middle. But if victory is the goal, candidates in 2016 must court independent voters. No one knows precisely how many people we’re talking about. In public opinion surveys, some 40 percent of Americans self-identify as “independent,” although the percentage of what pollsters call “persuadables” is much smaller. Whatever its exact size, these swing voters exercise disproportionate influence on the outcome of competitive national elections and are likely to determine the next president.
In appealing to them, both camps must overcome bad habits—class warfare for the Democrats; neglect of the interests of working men and women and of minorities for the Republicans—that limit their electoral reach. To complicate matters further, voters this election cycle are—judging by their appetite for outsiders and rabble-rousers—especially angry and volatile.
For guidance in understanding the twisting path to the presidency in an era of extensive change and divided government, Karl Rove makes a compelling case that we should examine the election of 1896. In “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters,” Rove maintains that “McKinley’s campaign matters more than a century later because it provides lessons either party could use today to end an era of a 50-50 nation and gain the edge for a durable period.”
The architect of George W. Bush’s two victorious presidential campaigns and a senior adviser in both of the 43rd president’s administrations, Rove writes that McKinley’s election “was one of the most consequential in American history, leading to a dramatic political realignment.” Most historians and political scientists concur, but Rove is less interested in the realignment, which produced Republican Party domination of the federal government for most of the next 36 years, and more concerned with the qualities of character, the campaign strategy, and the vision of America that enabled McKinley to pull off a decisive victory in a hotly contested election.
Perhaps surprisingly, because he’s a proven partisan, Rove shows himself to be a sure-handed historian. He ably relates the story of McKinley’s rise from Civil War hero to ambitious young lawyer in Canton, Ohio; his 14 years of service in the House of Representative; his four years as governor of Ohio; and his election as the 25th president of the United States. The bulk of Rove’s book is devoted to a gripping, blow-by-blow account of McKinley’s complex intra-party struggle for the Republican nomination in 1895 and his bruising battle in the summer and fall of 1896 with the young, charismatic and fiery orator from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan.
In the process, Rove brings to life a late-19th-century America that is both eerily familiar and another world. The Gilded Age, as Mark Twain dubbed it, was marked by rapid industrialization, dramatic economic growth, and severe economic downturns; the coexistence of great fortunes and grinding poverty; the influx of large numbers of European immigrants; and a divided federal government in which neither party could obtain the simultaneous control of Congress and the presidency that was necessary to entrench its policy agenda.
Gilded Age presidential campaigns tended to be relatively restrained affairs, however, in which the set-piece speech was a great public event and the principal means of communicating with voters. Rail was the most effective means of transport. Surrogates stumping for their party’s standard-bearer were more common on the campaign trail than the nominee himself. Conventions really mattered. And party bosses chose candidates in backroom deals.
Rove also brings to life William McKinley, a man of impressive character. On the basis of “deeply held moral convictions” about the evils of slavery, he volunteered for military service, and demonstrated exemplary courage on the Civil War battlefield. His conduct as lawyer, campaigner, and office holder was consistently marked by stringent discipline, careful preparation, and personal courtesy. He was a devoted husband to his wife who, in part owing to the devastating deaths of both daughters, lived as a near-invalid for most of their marriage.
Two great issues dominated McKinley’s political career. As a member of Congress, he earned the appellation “Apostle of Protection” for his strong support for tariffs—that is, taxes—on imported goods. Contrary to some of today’s Republicans, who seem to regard all taxes as inherently anti-growth, McKinley argued that stiff tariffs were necessary to enable nascent American industry to compete with cheap goods from abroad, thereby creating jobs and raising wages at home.
On the other defining question of the day, he tended to side with the East Coast establishment that favored gold-backed or “sound” money as essential to national prosperity. Through the coinage of another and ample precious metal, the proponents of “free silver,” led by Bryan, intended to devalue the currency. This, they claimed, would ease the burden on debtors, particularly farmers in the Midwest and West.
“The animating principle of McKinley’s political career,” Rove writes, “was a concern for creating conditions that would allow ordinary people to rise.” While McKinley knew politics was a contact sport and played to win, he recognized that "there are no permanent enemies in politics." This gave him the flexibility to seize opportunities to enlarge his alliances for the purpose of advancing his principles.
Rove identifies several factors that contributed to McKinley’s victory. He ran a well-organized and relentlessly focused campaign. He dealt with big issues and articulated popular reforms and in the process broadened his party’s appeal and modernized its message. He took on his opponent’s supposed strengths. He managed to run simultaneously as an outsider who would bring good judgment and integrity to the White House and as a man of extensive experience who knew his way around Washington’s corridors of power. In contrast to the populist Bryant, who denounced New York City as “the enemy’s country,” McKinley sought to unify America by “adopting the language of national reconciliation.”
That was 1896. There is no guarantee that in the 2016 election cycle voters will gravitate toward candidates of impressive character and respond favorably to a high-minded, public-spirited, inclusive message that revolves around enlarging economic opportunity for all. Amid the flux of circumstance, elections not only put candidates to the test. They also put the people to the test.