Not since he was murdered by an anarchist 114 years ago has William McKinley found an admirer as ardent as Karl Rove. If the Republican strategist and super-PAC pioneer has his way, historians will begin to rank the 25th president as highly as they do Lincoln and FDR—master politicians who made their parties the dominant forces in the nation’s affairs. But to agree with Rove would be to ignore the context in which McKinley captured the White House and the nature of the new Republican majority he helped create.
In The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, Rove argues his case with the vigor of a man on a historical mission. He stuffs his narrative about McKinley’s capture of the GOP nomination in 1896 and then his victory in the fall election with enough vivid and little-known details to satisfy even the most jaded campaign aficionado. Rove discloses the subtle maneuvers his hero, a Civil War veteran from Ohio, then as now a critical swing state, executed to clear the field of rivals. Republican pols with nicknames like Fire Alarm Joe and Gooseneck Bill get artfully seduced and then defeated. Rove also provides a shrewd analysis of the partnership McKinley forged with Mark Hanna, the Cleveland industrialist who, years earlier, had decided that the “Major” had the makings of a president. Hanna was never shy about milking his connections with moguls like John D. Rockfeller (a high school classmate) to fund the race against the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, the gifted 36-year-old orator whose agrarian populist and pro-union rhetoric threw a big scare into corporate America.
Rove appreciates, and appears to regret, that politics in the Gilded Age was a world we have lost, one that enthralled millions of ordinary Americans as well as veteran pols. Frequent state and county conventions, perpetual speechmaking, and torchlit and flag-brandishing street parades helped push the turnout of eligible voters to the highest levels in U.S. history—before or since. Sure, politics was combat by other means, with high stakes for the nation’s future. But it could also be a lot of fun, at least for the cigar-puffing men who played it and the nearly all-white (and mostly male) electorate that flocked to the polls.
Unfortunately, Rove is far better at charting McKinley’s ascent to the White House than he is at explaining why it “still matters.” He writes adoringly of the strategy the Republican used but neglects the larger reasons for his victory. Rove believes his hero vanquished Bryan because McKinley campaigned on “big issues” (retaining the gold standard and high tariffs) and “ran as a unifier, adopting the language of national reconciliation.” He barely mentions that the Republicans outspent their opposition by a stunning margin of more than ten-to-one; Rockfeller pitched in $250,000 of his own Standard Oil fortune, which nearly equalled Bryan’s entire campaign budget. Nearly every big-city newspaper, beholden as they were to business advertisers, openly promoted McKinley’s cause. They derided his opponent as a “Popocrat” running on an “anarchist” platform that would destroy the nation.
What’s more, Bryan was the nominee of an incumbent party, which under President Grover Cleveland had failed, for three painful years, to alleviate the worst depression the U.S. had ever endured. Bryan and his allies did repudiate Cleveland, which spurred the president’s enraged and conservative loyalists to mount a splinter presidential ticket (the “Gold Democrats”) designed to fragment the vote and elect McKinley. Thus, in November, when Americans entered the polling booth, they had to decide whether to vote for the standard-bearer of a party at war with itself.
What’s remarkable is not that McKinley won, with 51 percent of the popular vote, but that he came as close as he did to losing. Bryan had to overcome the vehement opposition of the press, most academics and ministers, as well as the open hostility of the nation’s largest manufacturers, some of whom threatened to go out of business if the Democrat won. By necessity as much as inclination, Bryan had to run as a protest candidate, a Populist in Democratic clothing.
“He was an agitator by profession, and the agitator is always vulnerable,” wrote the historian Richard Hofstadter about the abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Despite a similar reputation, Bryan would still have been elected if he had drawn just 19,250 additional votes, distributed across six states where the result was agonizingly close.
The election of 1896 did begin an era of GOP dominance of the federal government. Five of the next six presidents were Republicans, and the sole exception, Woodrow Wilson, captured the office in 1912 only because Theodore Roosevelt (McKinley’s successor) bolted his party to make a strong bid as a Progressive. The Democrats controlled the House for only eight years between 1896 and the onset of the Great Depression. They held onto the South and a few border states yet were seldom competitive anywhere else.
But Republicans achieved supremacy only by embracing economic reforms that McKinley would have found distasteful and Mark Hanna, who died in 1904, abhorred. As President, TR demanded strict regulations on big business, urged employers to bargain with their workers, and endorsed both an income and an inheritance tax. When the sort of rich Republican investors who had bankrolled his predecessor complained, he scorned them as “malefactors of great wealth” engaged in a “contest … to determine who shall rule this free country—the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization.” Bryan, still the most popular Democrat in the country, joked that Roosevelt had copied so many of proposals and his rhetoric that they were fast becoming nonpartisan.
Rove credits McKinley with remaking the Republicans into a dynamic institution of Americans “drawn together by common beliefs and allegiances.” The man from Ohio “aimed to unite a divided country” and “reignite the economy.” But this ignores the deep rifts in the GOP between Hanna’s old guard and figures like TR, as well as with more left-leaning Republicans such as Senator Robert La Follette and the feminist and urban reformer Jane Addams whose passion for class equality matched that of socialists. Under Republican rule, neither the party nor the country was more united than it had been in the 1890s. But the Democrats were unable to shed their image as a bastion of ex-Confederates and agrarian radicals, and their opponents took full advantage of that.
A decade ago, when he was President George W. Bush’s closest political aide, Karl Rove told reporters he aimed to be the Mark Hanna of the 21st century. He longed to create a GOP whose ethnic tolerance and support for untrammeled free markets would appeal to Latinos and Asians, as well as to white Democrats turned off by gay rights and abortion. Debacles in Iraq, New Orleans, and the housing market blasted that ambition to bits.
Since the 2010 midterm election, Rove’s party has indeed gathered strength. But it has done so by accusing Barack Obama of seeking to destroy capitalism, surrendering to radical Islam, aiming to give “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants, and giving voice to racial and religious bigots. It is a strategy sharply opposed to that which McKinley, at least in his admirer’s opinion, had followed. Karl Rove will certainly be pleased If the Republicans end up winning the presidency and keeping control of Congress next year. But the triumph will do nothing to resolve the serious conflicts roiling our nation.
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent. His next book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918, will be published in the fall of 2016 by Simon and Schuster.