In the Shadow of William McKinley
Mr. Tootle teaches history at the University of Northern Colorado. He is a member of the HNN blog, Rebunk.After four years, the Karl Rove-George W. Bush political team can claim one narrow electoral victory in the presidential election of 2000, a series of domestic policy successes, victory in two major battles in the war on terror, and stunning gains for the Republicans in the 2002 midterm elections. Though it is too soon to assess whether or not Bush will realign American politics in the manner of William McKinley, the next test comes this November.
To Rove, President McKinley was the master politician who understood how immigration and industrialization had forever changed American politics and used that knowledge in the 1896 presidential election to build a coalition sturdy enough to last a generation. Such political success was no small achievement, and Rove drew three important lessons from McKinley. First, the president should be fervently, almost religiously devoted to an ethos of economic opportunity. Next, American foreign policy should always be in line with traditional American principles and the best interests of the nation. Finally, presidents should avoid divisive issues. Rove took those lessons to heart in 2000 and began his attempt to shape American politics.
By happy coincidence, a wave of literature rethinking William McKinley’s legacy has now appeared. Rove learned of McKinley’s political genius as a student of historian Lewis L. Gould at the University of Texas, and few history classes could claim such consequences. In Gould’s The Modern American Presidency, McKinley takes center stage as the man who created the modern presidency. The William McKinley of Gould’s opening chapter was a man of tremendous will and deft political sense who made the president the focus of national political life.
Gould explains that McKinley’s political achievements did not end with his presidential victory. In the 1898 midterm elections he made indirect appeals to the voters’ patriotism by reminding citizens that voting was an important part of preserving “gains made in the recent fighting.” His standard stump speech was a sermon on national unity and friendship. He used his popularity to build support for his decision to take the Philippines and extend the powers of his office beyond anything his predecessors had contemplated—including establishing in Cuba and the Philippines military governments that were financed by the executive branch, and therefore not subject to direct congressional oversight. He further extended American (and presidential) power by sending troops into China as part of an international expedition during the Boxer Rebellion without congressional permission or a declaration of war. To make these actions possible, presidential secretary George B. Cortelyou managed the increasingly complex executive branch, acting as a de facto chief of staff, while McKinley made extensive use of new technology, the telephone, to direct affairs. Over the course of ten chapters, Gould describes how the presidency changed during the twentieth century under McKinley’s successors; but McKinley built the foundation.
While in office, McKinley cultivated a good working relationship with the press. He did not regard them as hostile, and they did not treat him as such. After all, McKinley had arranged in 1897 to give journalists a second-floor working space within the White House. But artful dullness and misdirection were part of McKinley’s political style, and his presidential reputation would suffer for it. McKinley’s reputation also suffered for reasons he could not control. He was assassinated in the first year of the twentieth century, which gave him an unfortunate place in most history and political science textbooks. Further, most historians associate innovation in the executive branch with Democratic presidents. Even worse, McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt’s vivid personality allowed him easily to eclipse his predecessor.
For many years, the best book on McKinley was H. Wayne Morgan’s 1963 biography William McKinley and His America, but as Lewis Gould once wrote in a bibliographic note: “His conclusions about McKinley are more cautious than is the evidence of presidential strength that he offers.” Professor Morgan revised his now-classic text in time for Ohio’s 2003 bicentennial, and in pacing, prose, and argument the revised edition is superior to its predecessor. Morgan’s knowledge of the so-called Gilded Age had always been beyond reproach, and now the conclusion matches the evidence—and withal the book is a good read.
Morgan’s McKinley was a man well suited for both his time and his profession. He emerges as a man of great energy, charm, and kindness, with a desire for order and a genuine enjoyment of public life. More than simply unifying his party, McKinley created a new national Republican majority, restored confidence, and gave the nation a new sense of direction and destiny. He settled the most divisive issue of the day (the currency question) and created a firm policy on the next critical issue (trusts). His foreign policy was both cautious and popular, preparing Cuba and the Philippines for democracy and independence. In the 1963 edition, Morgan claimed that McKinley had failed to cross the threshold of “greatness,” because he was a captive of his traditionalist thinking. The new edition has no such disclaimer.
Kevin Phillips’s William McKinley, a volume in The American Presidents series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., is a gem of a book. Phillips has distilled the best McKinley scholarship into a book short enough to be essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the subject, while specialists will find his vigorous defense of McKinley refreshing. Phillips believes that McKinley’s mediocre standing among historians is the result of tired stereotypes that make fun of the rituals of life in small Midwestern towns—as if McKinley’s membership in the Masonic order, kindness towards his invalid wife, and Methodism were somehow worse training for the presidency than Woodrow Wilson’s life in the priggish academy.
Phillips claims that many historians have taken McKinley’s good qualities and twisted them into disadvantages. McKinley was not hostile to business interests, but he was not their slave either. He was agreeable, with a patient and sympathetic nature, but these are not bad qualities in a leader. He did have an ear for public opinion, but that is an indispensable asset in a republic. Perhaps more remarkable was McKinley’s ability to use uncertainty in order to build a consensus around his decisions. He avoided dramatic action and obvious self-promotion. Historians would normally assume that someone as politically successful as McKinley must have been relying on something more than good fortune and a good nature. But in historians’ eyes, he committed an unpardonable sin. Phillips argues that, unlike President Eisenhower, McKinley did not write down what he was thinking while in office nor live long enough to produce a memoir; therefore, historians hoping to revise McKinley’s reputation upward could not find McKinley’s “hidden hand.”
Phillips accepts all of Gould’s assertions about McKinley’s use of expert commissions, patronage, the press, and his faithful deputy Cortelyou to rebuild the power of the presidency. In addition, Phillips credits McKinley for promoting national unity, realigning American politics, encouraging the next generation of Republican leaders, creating the conditions for economic prosperity, and guiding the United States as it rose to become a world power (including nurturing a close friendship with Britain that held through two world wars). Certainly, these are no small achievements, but Phillips finds that he fell short of “Greatness” because his method of leadership was too indirect to be inspirational.
Phillips wonders if any conservative president could ever be considered truly “Great.” After all, Phillips argues, “Great” conservatives only become “Great” by un-conservative means. He offers the revolutionary Washington, the slave-freeing Lincoln, and the trust-busting, corruption-fighting Theodore Roosevelt as examples. Here Phillips is off the mark. One must remember that American conservatism is based on preserving some rather revolutionary ideals. Washington was a great president because of his conservative actions to save the liberties gained in the Revolution, by nurturing the new national government under the Constitution. Lincoln’s preservation of the United States was a conservative act. If one does not accept that slavery, monopoly power, and corruption are component parts of American conservatism, certainly fighting those things cannot be considered un-conservative. Phillips is probably on firmer ground with his frank assertion that McKinley suffered from his association with middle-class values and middle-class constituencies.
But if Phillips understands how an association with middle-class values can hurt presidential reputation, he shows no sign of sympathizing with George W. Bush, who currently has a special place in the hearts of middle-class Americans. Beyond Karl Rove’s attempt to put together a new, winning coalition, Phillips rejects any meaningful parallels between McKinley and Bush. According to Phillips, McKinley supported labor interests, put more of the tax burden on the rich, and hated lobbyists. Unlike Bush, McKinley resisted popular opinion when it called for war. Of course, McKinley did ultimately go to war, but Phillips accepts the dubious Bush-rushed-to-war thesis. And if we needed further proof, his few words on Bush in William McKinley confirm that Phillips is no fan of the president, and he is not alone.
Historian Eric Rauchway’s Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America was clearly shaped by the author’s understanding of the post-September 11 world. The subtext of Murdering McKinley is that Americans were somehow unreasonable in their reactions to Leon Czolgosz’s murderous anarchy. For Rauchway, McKinley’s role in American life was to “dam up” the “flood tide of revolution.” Most of the McKinley stereotypes rejected by Phillips are adopted by Rauchway to bolster his case—e.g., the kindly president was actually a tool of the business interests. But what really interests Rauchway is that the American people, groping for answers to explain the tragedy of McKinley’s assassination, turned to Theodore Roosevelt, who used the event to discredit radicalism. As you can see, McKinley does not have much of a role in Rauchway’s work, and the subtitle, The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, reveals the authors’ take on McKinley’s significance: McKinley’s most important act was his death.
Rauchway made his own comparison between McKinley and Bush in an opinion piece published on the eve of the 2002 midterm elections. He concluded that Karl Rove had succeeded in creating another Benjamin Harrison, not a new McKinley, because Bush was too hard-line and too committed to private enterprise to compare with the easygoing, moderate McKinley. Rauchway predicted electoral doom for Bush and the Republicans.
In their attempt to stretch a comparison across a century, scholars have shown yet again their difficulty in finding a definition of American conservatism that works for more than one election cycle. Rather than groping for intellectual categories to mimic or mirror the interest groups of liberalism , perhaps they should look for conservatism’s roots in the practical politics and history of the Republican Party. We may find a more useful definition of conservatism by looking for the common threads in the governing philosophies of Lincoln, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George W. Bush. American conservatism is a peculiar thing, but it is not unknowable. Any working description should include Eisenhower’s favorite Lincoln quotation that the proper role of government was to “do for a community whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.”
Carefully studied, both the McKinley and the George W. Bush Administrations shatter the stereotypes of American conservatism. If Bush wins reelection in November, he will have taken his next step toward realizing Karl Rove’s dream of a new McKinley. As for McKinley himself, his reputation will continue to rise. I predict that he will be ranked as a “near great” president someday. At the very least, contemporary events have encouraged some good scholarship and focused attention on a presidency that deserves both.
This article was first published in the summer 2004 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
comments powered by Disqus
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
We have to wait "decades" for the "minutes of the meetings, diaries, memoirs etc. of the participants" ?
I don't think so.
There are reams of Congressional record statements and roll-call votes on immigration issues, not to mention all the public opinion polls and public positions of the individual Congress people, and a host of other news media stories, reports, and opinion pieces. The vast bulk of this, I confidently assert, would -if fairly examined- indicate that that immigration proposal had approximately a snowball's chance in hell of passing Congress during the presidency of the proposer. Either those who think Bush was being McKinley-like with his immigration proposal have some fantastic evidence that contradicts the preponderance of the public record, or they don't know what they are talking about, or they have some agenda other than promoting an objective understanding of the present and the past.
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
Thanks for the cites. Nothing about Bush and McKinley pre 9-11, and nothing about McKinley at all post Richard Clarke and Abu Ghraib. The proof of the pudding is in the track records, if you pardon the mixed metaphor. Is there an ant-hill in Crawford, TX that might be renamed Mt. Bush ?
That would be suitably distant from even the shadow of 20, 320 foot high Mt. McKinley.
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
I HAVE read the article. The McKinley history is mostly okay, but not earthshattering. The propagandistic praise for Bush is mostly ludicrous. The supposed connection between the two is mostly dubious.
RE: "If you want to figure out Bush's intentions, you will have to wait decades for those things."
If you want Bush's own stated intentions, you'd probably have to wait forever, given his disdain for history, transparency and honesty. He is hardly unique in that respect, however, which is why historians use reason and judgement to reach conclusions from available facts. E.g. here: A more liberal immigration policy has obvious appeal to a president more driven by spin and polls than most, who "leads" (actually is ruining) a party desirous of increasing its still fairly small share of support from the rapidly growing ethnic group in question.
As for my "case", it is simply summarized: Bush is so outrageously incompetent in so many ways there is no prior president he can be meaningfully compared him to. Go to any bookstore in America to see the hundreds of well-written books detailing the wide-range of indisputable evidence. Go to past HNN pages to see the long litany of absurd and unhistorical attempts to pass him off as a latter-day Wilson, FDR, Ike, Lincoln, etc..
Re his immigration proposal: I actually think it is a rather good idea. It shows that he has a brain and an ability to use it constructively. Unfortunately he mostly operates as a puppet on Rove's string, and there is (from the prior comments here at least) no evidence of any reason for his issuing this proposal other than a (probably failed) attempt to win a few votes. It has not backfired as badly his Cuban reunification gaffe, but it probably will remain buried, perhaps until a real leader some day recycles it and actually puts it into a real policy plan.
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
The U.S. economy grew markedly under McKinley, it has stagnated under Bush.
Under McKinley, the U.S. had one ship blown up in a foreign port. 300 deaths. No warnings, probably an accident. Under Bush three buildings and four airplanes were destroyed at home. 3,000 deaths. Not an accident and plenty of unheeded warnings.
Under McKinley, the U.S. fought a short and successful war in Cuba. Under Bush it has been thrown into an intractable mess in Iraq.
As for popular reception, McKinley won clear majorities in two Presidential elections and was highly regarded by foreign leaders. I doubt that any 20,000 peaks will be named Bush anytime soon.
Here we have another in a very long line of factually untenable attempts at HNN to find historical precedents with which to attempt to dignify the disastrous policies and actions of the incompetent Bush administration.
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
Tootle writes above, questioning a previous post of mine”
"I would like an example of my "ludicrous" "propagandistic praise for Bush."
Okay, I did misread the last paragraph of Tootle's essay and took the “near great” attribution therein as being applied directly to Bush rather than to McKinley (and only suggestively thereby to Bush). My apologies to the author and the other readers.
Not as a defense of my oversight, but I was very much put off by the opening sentences of the article wherein the winning of a few seats is described as a “stunning gain”, and was even more put off by the very unhistorical and short-sighted phrase “war on terror”, notwithstanding its ubiquitous usage. Bin Laden and his ilk could hardly have imagined, before 9-11-01, a greater propaganda victory than to have Americans of all ideological hues indirectly and foolishly glorifying their (Al Qaeda’s) atrocities as war and their murdering fanatics as warriors by repeating this down-dumbing and counterproductive term. I also question, as Rumsfeld himself did in his famous “leaked” memo, whether any victories can yet be declared in this “war” on the noun we currently most love to hate.
Since this is a discussion about predicting the future course of history, I will go further out on the limb by suggesting that Bush’s deceptively conceived and often bungled “war on terror” is far more likely to be eventually categorized with the Alien and Sedition Acts, Wounded Knee, the Red Scare, the Japanese Internment, and “Duck and Cover” movies, than with anything connected to McKinley, or to any of the other past heroics (as per copious previous HNN articles referred to in my earlier posts here). (I am also not even attempting to find a historical parallel to Bush’s colossal Iraq disaster, in comparison to which the “war on terror”, as usually interpreted, does look almost successful). It is true that Kipling had McKinley in mind when he spoke of the “White Man’s Burden”, but McKinley, to his credit, ran for reelection mainly on his record rather than by resorting to silly slogans to try to cover up a pile of deceptions, mistakes, and disasters.
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
1. When (precise date and full citation please) did Karl Rove talk about McKinley and wanting Bush to be like him ? I don't think anything Rove (or Hanna) has ever said should be taken at "face value", but I suppose there is a factual record of his public remarks.
2. Is there any good evidence of Bush or Rove having (a) credible grounds for believing that the proposed new immigration policy (with guest worker passes, etc.) might have a more than a remote chance of passing Congress within the next decade and (b) has anyone in the Administration made a credible public effort to persuade the public or Congress to act on it ? As I recall, this immigration proposal was tossed out at about the same time as the proposal to send a man to Mars (financed by the voodoo magic of tax cuts, perhaps).
David Lion Salmanson - 8/21/2004
Unfortunately, now I gotta go read some books. Thanks for a good article.
Stephen Tootle - 8/20/2004
I see your point, and it is valid, but I would argue that the tone of Bush's speeches about DMA have been much more measured than WJB. We might be able to chalk up that difference to changes in politics though. Point taken.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/20/2004
Why thank you. I'd like to clarify a bit on my Cross of Gold vs. DMA comparison (keeping in mind Tim's caveats about historical comparison). For Bryan, I would argue, bimetallism came to symbolize a whole agenda that was primarily regionally based, one that had been embodied by the populist party at first. It was one in which, I think, a primarily Protestant "safety-first" agricultural world was trying to deal with the difficult adjustments of adapting to not just a market economy, but a market economy that drew them into a world-wide network, where the price of wheat they sold at home wasn't just tied to Chicago but India (see The World that Trade Made on these connections, fascinating stuff). So bimetallism came to stand for the defense of a whole way of life that they believed was under attack, by urbanites, money men, immigrants (wets), Jews (or at least some folks were anti-Semetic) and imperial foreign policy that would further pollute the polity.
DMA functions for Bush in the same way, as a symbol for a largely Protestant, largely red-state, group of folks who, distrubed by the disruptions of not just global commerce, but a global cultural commerce, see DMA as a defense of their values. The opposition, in this case, is hip-hop culture, metropolitans, out homosexuals who seek full membership in the polity, and in some cases, anti-immigrant.
Stephen Keith Tootle - 8/19/2004
I should have also mentioned that Mr. Salmanson's questions and comments have been good, and thoughtful.
Stephen Keith Tootle - 8/19/2004
First, This comment is not directed at Derek or Mr. Dresner.
Here is my what my article said. First, Rove wanted Bush to be like McKinley in 2000. Second, a bunch of new McKinley books have come out, so we can all take a look at what it means to be like McKinley. Then I described the books. Finally, in the last paragraphs, I made some suggestions about how to better study conservatism.
Some comments have strayed into other areas, and I have tried to answer them-- getting pretty far from the original article. Politics aside, Bush has been remarkably effective at passing major legislation. You don't have to like the major legislation he has passed. It is not propaganda to say that No Child Left Behind, prescription drug coverage, or the tax cut, got through Congress. You can say these laws are bad, but you cannot make the case that they did not pass during the Bush administration.
Perhaps from now on I should only answer the comments from people who actually read, and understood, what I wrote.
Mr. Clarke, you wrote:
"I HAVE read the article. The McKinley history is mostly okay, but not earthshattering. The propagandistic praise for Bush is mostly ludicrous. The supposed connection between the two is mostly dubious."
I am glad you think the McKinley history is "mostly okay," but it is not my history. This was a review essay. I was summarizing the work of others. That you did not understand the distinction is what made believe that you did not read the article.
I would like an example of my "ludicrous" "propagandistic praise for Bush."
Finally, I did not make the "supposed connection" between Bush and McKinley. Rove did.
Derek Charles Catsam - 8/19/2004
On the politics of this, I tend to side with Professor Clarke, at least inasmuch as I don't buy the links between McKinley and Bush that you are making in the comments, Steve. But I have read and re-read the article you originally wrote a couple of times, and I honestly thought it was far less about this politicized question of the links between Mckinley and Bush and more about McKinley qua McKinley. In other words, I think the case you make in the article is stronger than and different from the case you are trying to maintain here.
I am always skeptical of the "motivation" question, which is where I suppose I differ from professor Clarke here. Usually we bring up "motivation" to impugn or to bolster our preconceptions of someone -- ie, Bush's motives are craven Bush's motives are pure. Now i know where I stand politically on this, but from a more distanced vantage point, I honestly do not know Bush's motives, and unlike Steve, I am not certain that documentation released fifty years hence will really clarify that much. Unless we get a fairly clear rendering of their motives (as some historical figures, ranging from King to Gandhi to Hitler to Biko have given us) that is often the last thing we know. And I am not certain it is important. I do not care why someone did something so much as that they did it and what the consequences were and what that means. If, after assessing all of that, we are in a position to acsribe virtue or vice, great. And that's a lot better than the amorphous "motive" in most cases.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/19/2004
Stephen Tootle - 8/19/2004
Upon further reflection, I realized my answer to you could have been better. I think you are attached to a university somewhere. If you cannot find the polling data and would like me to send hard copies of my research to you at your office, drop me an email with your address.
Also, I want to thank you for your thoughtful comments. Your questions have been more along the lines I had anticipated. More importantly, I can tell that you actually bothered to read the article before you commented. I appreciate it.
Stephen Tootle - 8/18/2004
If you want to figure out Bush's intentions, you will have to wait decades for those things. The resources you mention are all fine sources, but not for the question at hand. Please reread the article. Or better yet, why don't you put your evidence together into an article of your own. Make a case about what the public record indicates, and make confident assertions if you wish. As one of my old profs used say, "Run it up the flagpole and see who salutes."
Stephen Tootle - 8/18/2004
I would encourage you to read either Morgan's biography of McKinley or Gould's book on the McKinley presidency. They both go into chapter-length depth on the issues you raise regarding the territories the U.S. got from Spain.
I suppose I would disagree with your association of the "cross of gold" speech and the Defense of Marriage act. Again, I would encourage readers to read Bush's speech announcing his position and Bryan's speech. Bush's speech is available on the White House website. Any google search would find Bryan's speech.
I don't find Bush position on steel to be out of the ordinary in balancing political and economic considerations. Ditto farm subsidies.
Again, I am not here to argue the merits of these actions or programs.
Stephen Tootle - 8/18/2004
Forgot to answer your "credible evidence" question. I suppose I would like to wait for the minutes of the meetings, diaries, memoirs etc. of the participants, but that will take decades. As for your cynicism, there is not much I can do about that.
Stephen Tootle - 8/18/2004
If you have lexis-nexis, just do a search of Karl Rove and William McKinley. Here are some of the articles I used:
Copyright 2002 P.G. Publishing Co.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania)
April 2, 2002 Tuesday SOONER EDITION
SECTION: EDITORIAL, Pg.A-17
LENGTH: 799 words
HEADLINE: GEORGE 'MCKINLEY' BUSH?;
ANOTHER REPUBLICAN PRESIDENT PREVAILED BY PROJECTING U.S. POWER. BUSH HAS GRANDER AMBITIONS
The Washington Post
April 2, 2002 Tuesday
SECTION: EDITORIAL; Pg. A15
LENGTH: 798 words
HEADLINE: Harder Than McKinley
BYLINE: E. J. Dionne Jr.
The Augusta Chronicle (Georgia)
November 11, 2001 Sunday, ALL EDITIONS
SECTION: EDITORIAL, Pg. A04 George F. Will column
LENGTH: 859 words
HEADLINE: LOOKING BACK TO SEE THE FUTURE
The Washington Times
September 20, 2000, Wednesday, Final Edition
SECTION: PART A; COMMENTARY; OP-ED; Pg. A19
LENGTH: 842 words
HEADLINE: Picking the dark horse;
Which presidential analogy will win?
BYLINE: Tony Blankley; THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The Washington Post
July 24, 1999, Saturday, Final Edition
SECTION: A SECTION; Pg. A01; CAMPAIGN 2000
LENGTH: 1352 words
HEADLINE: A Century-Old Blueprint Inspires GOP; Republicans Look to President McKinley for a Makeover Lesson
BYLINE: David Von Drehle, Washington Post Staff Writer
To be cutting edge in this presidential election, you have to learn the lessons of the '96 campaign.
1896, that is.
THE SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER
April 22, 2003, Tuesday FINAL
SECTION: EDITORIAL, Pg. B5
LENGTH: 1275 words
HEADLINE: PARTYING LIKE IT'S 1899
BYLINE: ERIC SCIGLIANO
Deseret News (Salt Lake City)
December 11, 2002, Wednesday
SECTION: OPINION; Pg. A14
LENGTH: 683 words
HEADLINE: Rove keeps focus on Bush's place in history
BYLINE: By Lee DavidsonDeseret News Washington correspondent
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)
August 11, 2002, Sunday
SECTION: Insight; Pg. H1
LENGTH: 1246 words
HEADLINE: Presidential parallels in Bush, McKinley
A century separates these two Republicans, but historical similarities between them are striking
BYLINE: Thomas Schaller, SPECIAL TO THE BALTIMORE SUN
David Lion Salmanson - 8/18/2004
Can you tell me what concrete actions McKinley took to promote Democracy in the Phillipines or Cuba? Looking at the actions of McKinley's chosen administrators it would seem that at every juncture presented with a choice between promoting Democracy and promoting narrow economic interests of a few interested parties the administrators chose the latter.
RE: culture wars. Bush is strongly identified with the evangelical right, Bryan was a mainstream Protestant too. The distinction isn't one of professed faith, rather the way one uses faith in politics. I don't think McKinley was being disingenuous about praying over his decision to go to war with Spain, but I also don't think he was using it for political advantage the way Bush tries to use religion. (This raises a whole other question on the return of ethno-cultural voting and whether or not it is time to revisit this discredited model of understanding political history). Bryan was a dry, populist, whose many runs for the presidency were increasingly based around an attack on cultural and economic elites. Bush's support of the Defense of Marraige Act is rapidly becoming his Cross of Gold I would argue.
Here in Pennsylvania the cynical on-again off-again steel tarriff is so blatantly vote grubbing (on-again to try to woo the Western part of the state, off-again when the inevitable fall out in Michigan and Ohio steel related industries felt the bite of higher prices) that I think it is impossible to argue that it was designed to "preserve economic opportunity." Bush's farm subsidies also continue to be an economic disaster for not just the US consumers but for the rest of the world as well, particularly the third world where market farmers end up being forced off their land and wind up in sweatshops where the compete with American workers. Of course, this is not specifically Bush's problem, it is largely a result of the Senate, but I was hoping Bush would at least pull a mend it don't end it on farm subsidies.
Stephen Tootle - 8/18/2004
If you have access to lexis-nexis, or Gallup online, check the exit polling from just after the 2000, and 2002 elections. I would link both but they require subscriptions. Realclearpolitics also has polling data, but they don't archive very far back.
As for taking the Bush administration at face value, I do take them at face value in matters where they said they were going to do something, then proposed (and strongly advocated) and/or passed legislation. Regardless, my essay was about Rove-Bush's intentions in 2000 and 2002. I can't look into Karl Rove's soul, but when he said he wanted to be like McKinley, I believed him.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/18/2004
"Even current polling data suggests that if the rich and the poor didn't vote that Bush would win big. Or, if those with Bachelor degrees voted (and nobody else), Bush would win... or only married couples."
Do you have a source for this? I'm not trying to be snippy, I'm just really curious as to where this kind of demographic breakdown is available.
I will agree that Bush made one (and only one) good move on immigration (which I noted on Cliopatria, actually) but left a lot of other really important immigration issues untouched.
As for the rest of it, your willingness to take the administration at face value is much greater than mine.
Stephen Tootle - 8/17/2004
Bush does understand how immigration and industrialization have changed American politics. He has pushed for both immigration reform and funding for technical training at community colleges. You may argue that economic growth has been too slow, or could be faster, or whatever, but I do not doubt Bush's commitment to economic prosperity.
The immigration act and the tax cut are both real, substantive, legislative achievements based on a worldview. You can argue that the worldview is incorrect, but Bush's legislative record shows both effort and achievement.
Which divisive issues do you think Bush has both generated, then exploited? There are many divisive issues that Bush has had to deal with, but few, if any that came from Bush. In addition, he has yet to take a hard line on any of them.
As for your point on his foreign policy, I will let you argue with John Gaddis:
I agree that nothing has been settled, but that will depend on the outcome of the next election.
I would argue that Bush is not a slave to business interests. If he was, he would not have fought the Iraq war, and he would not support Israel. He would be fighting the war on terror with symbolic action in order to avoid offending other nations.
As for the dramatic action and self promotion... I think you are correct. But politics have changed. Presidents are expected to self-promote. Bush has taken more dramatic steps in both foreign and domestic policy than McKinley. I suppose we could hash out each one, but that was not the purpose of my review essay.
The examples you mention were ideals of the Bush administration in 2000. They have fallen short in many areas, and much remains to be settled. Bush is trying to do what McKinley actually did. 25 years from now, after the archives are open, we should have a beer and discuss whether he succeeded or not.
Again, I think you can see what the goals are, but we will have to wait to judge his success. Beyond our own ballots, it does not matter what we think of Bush's intentions, but we should at least understand what he is trying to do.
I actually think Bush has not done a very good job at getting his message out, and the press has not been very good at explaining the White House position on most issues. As for his "special place in middle-class hearts," Bush was polling around 68% when I wrote this article and in the 80s with the middle class. Even current polling data suggests that if the rich and the poor didn't vote that Bush would win big. Or, if those with Bachelor degrees voted (and nobody else), Bush would win... or only married couples. Again, this kind of thing fluctuates, but it was accurate when I wrote it.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/17/2004
You write: "McKinley ... understood how immigration and industrialization had forever changed American politics"
I see no evidence the George Bush has a revolutionary understanding of either demographics or economics.
You write: "the president should be fervently, almost religiously devoted to an ethos of economic opportunity."
Bush's record on this is decidedly mixed, though his rhetoric is indeed 'fervent.'
"American foreign policy should always be in line with traditional American principles and the best interests of the nation."
"Presidents should avoid divisive issues."
While the blame does not fall entirely on this administration, there is a very real divide in American politics and life which the administration has exploited rather than ameliorated.
You write: "He settled the most divisive issue of the day (the currency question) and created a firm policy on the next critical issue (trusts). His foreign policy was both cautious and popular, preparing Cuba and the Philippines for democracy and independence."
Bush has settled very little, and administration policies are either rigidly ideological or, where ideology is no guide, sloppily ad hoc. His foreign policy can be described as neither cautious (hah!) nor popular, and the record on 'democracy and independence' for his conquests remains to be writ.
You write: " McKinley was not hostile to business interests, but he was not their slave either. ... He avoided dramatic action and obvious self-promotion."
This is actually the section I was thinking of most directly when I wrote my comment.
I will grant that the administration has better press than it deserves, and that Bush's unintellectual style (note: that's style; I remain convinced that he's a pretty smart guy, but uncurious and unanalytical) helps his relationships and harms his image. However I have no idea what you're talking about when you invoke Bush's 'special place in middle-class hearts'. That's just absurd; if it were true, the election wouldn't even be close, unless you're arguing that only Republicans are truly 'middle-class'....
Stephen Tootle - 8/17/2004
Regarding the Philippines and Cuba, see chapter 19 of Morgan. McKinley did want democracy in the Philippines and Cuba. Gould and Phillips agree.
I think it is a stretch to say that "McKinley was on the liberal side of the culture wars of his era...." Both Bush and McKinley were/are mainstream Protestants. Bush has never said anything in public that would compare to Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech.
As for tariff policy, both Bush and McKinley attempted to do what they thought necessary to preserve economic opportunity.
Stephen Tootle - 8/17/2004
I suggest you reread my review essay.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/17/2004
Stephen (or is it Tootle?),
I appreciate you making the case for McKinley but I think you make two major errors. First, the brief sentence on McKinley's foreign policy suggests that M. was interested in promoting Democracy in the Phillipines and Cuba. This is clearly not the case in the Phillipines as the betrayal and supression of the independence movement shows and if it ever was the intent in Cuba it was a complete failure. The selection of Wood as administrator would seem to indicate that economics rather democracy dictated Cuban policy.
Second, and more importantly, McKinley's base was the theologically "liberal" North and Midwest, and not the South. McKinley was on the liberal side of the culture wars of his era, just look where Bryan ended up! Bryan's religious populism seems more in line with W than McKinley's understated Northern Methodism. And this exposes the limits of the comparison. The elecotoral realignment that put the South in charge is neglected here. Bush's base is not the moderate North and Midwest but the radical deep South, the very Democrats that McKinley so ably contained. The battlegrounds now are the Mid and Southwest.
You did neglect one other comparison: tarriff policy. If memory serves, McKinley was a protectionist, and in that, he shares a policy with W. While a high tarriff may have been justified in the 1890s, Bush's betrayal of free trade principles and cynical use of tarriff policy to win votes is one of the largely unspoken failings of his administration.
Stephen Keith Tootle - 8/16/2004
Could you give an example?
Jonathan Dresner - 8/16/2004
Bush/Rove may have McKinley's goals in mind, but Bush has few, if any, of the virtues ascribed here to McKinley, which makes the achievement of those goals unlikely.