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Karl Rove's Inspired by McKinley--But It's Benjamin Harrison's Script He's Following

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Mr. Dehler, PhD., is Adjunct Professor, Front Range Community College.

In reading a recent edition of my favorite political opinion magazine, I was reminded several times of Karl Rove's admiration for former President William McKinley. It seems strange since Rove's strategy over the last three years is much closer to the path followed by Benjamin Harrison than it is to the one William McKinley trod.

For those who might not know, McKinley is a role model for Rove because he was instrumental in building a Republican majority after a long period of party parity. Between 1876 and 1892, presidential elections were generally decided by two states, Indiana and New York . Most of the others voted the same in every election. The South voted solidly for the Democrats and North for the Republicans. The West was more unstable but not as meaningful. To break this deadlock McKinley used the tariff and the gold standard to pull traditional Democrats, such as urban workers to the Republican party. The tariff was sold to workers as the best insurance they had for job security and the gold standard as the best measure to supply the economic stability that was lacking in the boom and bust economy of the two decades prior. This majority lasted from 1896 until 1932. An impressive achievement. It was undone by the Great Depression and the creation of the New Deal coalition by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

McKinley has limitations for a role model, though. First, he benefitted handsomely from the depression of 1893 to 1897 which sunk the Democrats. McKinley's predecessor, Grover Cleveland made several unsuccessful attempts to address the depression, including a tariff reduction and repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. These two measures failed to alleviate the suffering of the nation and were politically messy affairs that cost Cleveland much support. Worse followed when he turned to the banker J.P. Morgan and Wall Street to repair the nation's tattered credit system costing Cleveland the loyalty of the Midwest and South who turned to the silverites and William Jennings Bryan. Bryan ran an energetic whistlestop campaign while McKinley wooed voters from his porch in Canton , Ohio . Bryan attacked the “Goldbugs” as pandering to big business and putting the interests of the bankers over the commoners and proposed, as way of a solution, coinage of silver which would create an inflationary economy. Workers voted for McKinley believing that the tariff and the gold standard would protect their prosperity and that their interests were closer to the factory owners than to the farmers.

McKinley was not the first Republican to attempt to build a new majority in the years 1876 to 1892. Benjamin Harrison, victor of the 1888 election, although he had a minority in the popular vote, worked with Republican Speaker of the House Thomas Reed of Maine to craft a new majority. Reed adopted strict rules in the House that earned him the nickname, “the czar” and gave him the power to get legislation through with lightening speed. The result was the “Billion Dollar Congress.” Lacking imagination and devoid of luck, the Republican majority in 1890 simply tried to buy their way to a new majority. A surplus created by the protectionist policies they avowed had come to be viewed by the public and pundits alike as a dangerous hoarding of money in the deflationary economy. Since the Republicans did not want to lose the protective nature of their tariff, they turned to the next best way of getting rid of the money, they spent it.

In the day before social security, medicare, and welfare, the biggest social spending in the Federal government was allocated to pensions for Civil War veterans. The Billion Dollar Congress increased this spending by 43 percent to include parents, widows, and children of veterans as eligible recipients for pensions. Next they tried to buy off the West and the Mountain states by enacting the Sherman Silver Purchase Act which required the federal government to purchase almost the entire output of the nation's silver mines. Reformers were wooed with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act designed to break up large business concentrations. Then Congressman William McKinley of Ohio revised the tariff by adding consumer goods, sugar, for example, to the free list, but adding farm products to the protected list and increasing rates on industrial products. Defense was not neglected as the navy budget was more than doubled. The first modern battleships constructed by the United States were appropriated during the Billion Dollar Congress.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Having gotten Congress to act, however, the Republicans were very disappointed by the results. The wished for majority never materialized. The populist movement in the West and the South saw all the Republican legislation as being driven by special interest base pandering. In 1890 the Democrats creamed the Republicans in the mid-term elections, aided a great deal by the state organizations tying to get unpopular temperance measures passed. In fact, it looked to many that the Republican party was on the verge of complete collapse in 1890. The election of Grover Cleveland, a former president and the Democratic standard bearer, on a policy of undoing the ill effects of the Billion Dollar Congress was a foregone conclusion.

McKinley warned the country that Cleveland 's anti-tariff policy would trigger an economic calamity. He was right. When the collapse came McKinley and his advisor Mark Hanna cleverly set about building a new majority. McKinley had intangible political quality of luck, the one thing that could not be bought.


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Ben H. Severance - 4/13/2004

Perhaps Karl Rove likes McKinley so much because the Ohio president inaugurated American imperialism (at least in a symbolic way) and because he had a campaign manager--Mark Hanna--so much like himself.

I am no authority in Gilded Age politics, but I've always thought that Hanna really ran the McKinley camp in much the same way that Rove wields great influence over Bush Jr. Still, your Harrison discussion is intriguing.