Republicans Admire Bill . . . McKinley, That Is
By David Von Drehle
1896, that is.
Republicans from K Street to Austin are dusting off their history books and boning up on bimetalism. At the headquarters of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, over cocktails with former GOP party chairman Haley Barbour, in the corridors of rightward think tanks, the party of Lincoln and Reagan has gone dizzy over William McKinley.
Why? Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation explains: "1896 was the year that McKinley and [political booster Mark] Hanna tried to redefine the Republican Party. Instead of rehashing Reconstruction and the Civil War, McKinley offered an appealing image to new immigrants, rising entrepreneurs and working folks.
"The theory of the Bush campaign," Wittmann continues, "with the slogan of 'compassionate conservatism,' is to similarly expand the base of the Republican Party, specifically by appealing to minorities and more centrist voters."
McKinley Mania has captured the Democrats as well. This week, candidate Bill Bradley drew his own lessons during a speech on campaign finance reform. "McKinley sat on his porch in Ohio," Bradley said, "carefully spinning soundbites that positioned him as a 'new Republican,' while Hanna promised the financiers and titans of that era that their interests would be protected."
Love it or hate it, you can't escape 1896.
The swami of McKinley Mania is Bush strategist Karl Rove, who got hooked two years ago during a class at the University of Texas. A tenacious student of political history, Rove dug deeply into the story of a canny, soothing heartland governor whose party was riven by tactical and religious squabbles. Raising money on a scale previously unimagined, while scarcely leaving his front porch, McKinley remade the party in his own charming image -- inclusive, pragmatic, noncontroversial.
Republicans dominated Washington for the next 35 years.
Rove liked the sound of that.
Soon he was drawing the parallels in conversations with friends and reporters, and the cult grew. By November, despite the disastrous midterm congressional elections, Barbour could be found rattling the ice cubes in his bourbon and sketching a hopeful future. The 2000 campaign, he declared, could be about "much more than one election -- there is the chance to make the Republicans the majority party for a generation. Just look at 1896."
More recently, brief mentions have popped up in the work of such influential commentators as Fred Barnes, E.J. Dionne Jr. and the team of Jules Witcover and Jack Germond. Last month, conservative columnist Paul Greenberg used 1896 as a stick to beat Bush for lacking substance. McKinley, he wrote, "mouthed respectable niceties, neither impressed nor frightened anyone, and was elected."
"In some ways," Greenberg wrote, 1896 was "the beginning of the modern, issueless campaign."
If Bush wins the White House, he will be the first incumbent Republican governor elected president since . . . 1896. If, as some have predicted, he raises in the neighborhood of $70 million to finance his campaign, he'll approach the war chest (measured in constant dollars) of the trailblazing McKinley.
"McKinley was a superb politician," says Rove. "He saw that all the old issues of the Civil War were worn out. He understood the new economy. It was a period of rapid industrialization. He also understood the changing demographic. Immigrants were now providing the manpower."
For nearly a century, McKinley has languished in the Hall of Forgotten Presidents. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich tried, without much success, to revive his memory three years ago, suggesting that McKinley was a lot like Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole.
A poor boy from a large Ohio family, McKinley was the last president of the Civil War generation. Known widely as the Major, in honor of his military rank, he rose through Congress to head the crucial Ways and Means Committee where, in the early 1890s, he passed a strong and popular tariff bill.
"He was very masterful at harmonizing competing positions," says H. Wayne Morgan, professor emeritus of history at the University of Oklahoma and the author of an admired biography of McKinley. "You don't make a tariff bill without having an awful lot of conflicting issues to accommodate."
That success caught the eye of Mark Hanna, a Cleveland industrialist with a passion for politics and an ambition to help make a president. Democrats would complain that McKinley was a mere puppet of moneybags Hanna -- indeed, that was Bradley's thesis in his campaign finance speech this week -- but historians generally believe they were a well-matched team of two strong men.
"Together, these two people made one great politician," says Morgan. "McKinley was out front, masterful with the public, while Hanna was in the back room."
With Hanna's help, McKinley was elected governor of Ohio -- a constitutionally weak position at that time, much like Bush's spot in today's Texas. Then, in 1896, they swept away all rivals to win a first-ballot nomination.
Faced in the general election by the great orator William Jennings Bryan, Republicans adopted a "front-porch" strategy, hoping to make a virtue of McKinley's vanilla personality. Hanna paid for it with $3.5 million -- at least $70 million in today's dollars -- from big business, with oil baron John D. Rockefeller writing the biggest check.
Thousands of citizens from across the country were brought to McKinley's home in Canton for a handshake and a few words. "To have delegations of Serbo-Croatian laborers, German tanners, Polish ironworkers -- imagine it!" Rove says with enthusiasm. Even some leading Catholics endorsed McKinley, an amazing circumstance for a Republican at the time.
A terrible depression was on. Rabble-rousing Bryan preached the forgiveness of farm debts and a more abundant money supply backed by silver as well as gold (hence "bimetalism"). Calm McKinley, on the other hand, ran as "the advance agent of prosperity" and became the first candidate in a generation to win a majority of the popular vote.
He was a pretty good, and very popular, president. Pushed reluctantly into the Spanish-American War, McKinley started America on the path to global power, and he was reelected by a landslide. In 1901, after delivering a speech in Buffalo, he was shot to death by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz.
McKinley was, characteristically, shaking hands at the time.
Bush backers see various similarities: the harmonizing influence (Bush has appealed to many sorts of voters in Texas), the ability to put a pleasant face on his fractious party, the gift for person-to-person politics.
Others add further comparisons: the ocean of money, the undistinguished oratory and the front-porch campaign (during the first half of this year, Bush was visited in Austin by delegations from dozens of states, all begging him to run).
But there are differences as well, as Rove is the first to admit. McKinley was challenging a party that had presided over an economic collapse. "The ins were going to be outs and the outs were going to become ins. It was almost inevitable," says Morgan.
Moreover, "Governor Bush -- who may be a wonderful person -- doesn't bring to this campaign the kind of legislative experience that the Major had," the professor adds. "McKinley paid a lot more dues. His views were perfectly well-known."
The half-life of a political theory in Washington can be measured in minutes, and already, some Republicans have begun to move past McKinley Mania. Wittmann, of the Heritage Foundation, is one.
"Remember," he says, "that McKinley's apple cart was upset when he chose Theodore Roosevelt as vice president. Roosevelt became president and redefined the party all over again. What if Bush meets his own version of Teddy Roosevelt in the primaries instead of a few years down the road? A reformer, a war hero, a tough, plain talker . . .
"Doesn't that sound a little like John McCain?"
© 1999 The Washington Post Company