TCS Daily

George W. McKinley

By James Pinkerton - November 18, 2002 12:00 AM

Maybe George W. Bush can pull it off. Maybe he can be, as Bush adviser Karl Rove always predicted, another William McKinley, a Republican president who reaches out to immigrants, weaves them into a larger coalition, and so creates a long-term, pro-GOP realignment of political power.

A tiny item in the news further bolsters the argument that something big happened on November 5. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported on November 12 that for the first time since 1952, Republicans hold more state legislative seats than Democrats. To be sure, the edge is slight, 3,663 to 3,645, but even so, 50 years is 50 years. Moreover, today elephants occupy both legislative chambers in 21 states, while donkeys dominate just 16 states. The other states are split or have non-partisan bodies.

Why make such a big deal about state legislatures? The answer is that in high-profile races such as for senator or governor, voters oftentimes say, "I'll vote the person, not the party." But voters rarely know much about their state legislative candidates. So they usually simply pull the lever for the candidate associated with the party they like better. In other words, in the closest thing we have to a real-world test of "generic" party strength, R's vs. D's, the R's have it.

Indeed, Washington-based political analyst Ron Jensen reaches back further to capture the enormity of the Republican win, noting that for the first time since 1872, Republicans have at least one major officeholder-Senator, Governor, or Member of Congress-in every state.

No wonder GOPers are feeling large and in charge. And the largest and in-chargest, of course, is George W. Bush.

Times sure do change. Less than two years ago, the Texan took office amidst controversy; he was only the fourth president to be sworn in after having lost the popular vote. And those first three-John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888-offered a baleful precedent; all were defeated after a single term.

Indeed, particularly eerie parallels seemed to connect the 43rd president and the 23rd president. Like Bush, Benjamin Harrison was the scion of an earlier chief executive. Like Bush, Harrison squeaked into the White House in a time of peace and prosperity. But Harrison's problem was the same problem that Bush seemed to be having when he took office: not enough ideas, too many immigrants.

In the late 1880s, the momentum of the Republican realignment that began with the election of 1860 had run out of steam. The GOP had lost sight of its energetic Lincolnian legacy of abolition and national unity, becoming instead the complacent party of railroads, robber barons, and anti-Roman Catholicism. Meanwhile, the country was flooding with immigrants; some 10 million came to America from 1860 to 1890, helping the population of the U.S. more than double, to 62.9 million. The influx of new opportunity-seekers was good for the economy, but bad for the GOP. The Republicans, after all, were the party of Protestants and stand-patters, while most of the newcomers were either Catholics or secular radicals.

These new Democrats in the North found themselves in an oddfellow alliance with Democrats in the South, who were slowly regaining their franchise after the Civil War. In the House, which was much more reflective of popular sentiment - senators were appointed in those days - Democrats took the Speaker's gavel in 1875 and held it for all but four of the next 17 years.

Harrison was competent and honest, but it was his misfortune to be on the wrong side of demographic - and Democratic - history. And so while he could win the White House in 1888 despite losing the popular balloting by 100,000 votes, his presidency couldn't survive a 400,000-vote deficit four years later - a period during which 2 million new Americans immigrated to our shores.

And for a time, that dreary scenario seemed to be in Bush's future, too. Yes, the President had lots of ideas, from tax cuts to school choice to partial Social Security privatization, but the Democrats had potent nostrums of their own, such as a prescription drug benefit for seniors. Indeed, a private White House study leaked in the summer of 2001 found that if Bush won the same percentages of the electorate's demographic subcategories - white, black, Hispanic, etc. - in 2004 that he won in 2000, he would lose for re-election by three million votes, six times his 2000 election deficit.

But then came 9-11. Suddenly, Bush looked a lot less like Harrison, one-termer mostly forgotten by history, and a lot more like McKinley, two-termer much remembered by history.

OK, McKinley is not a household name. But in his time, he was much revered - know anyone who's climbed Mt. McKinley? - and among Rove-type politicos, he is remembered as the builder of the Republican coalition that dominated the first three decades of the 20th century.

How did he do it? Much like Bush, McKinley came to the presidency from a big state-governorship - in his case, Ohio - interested mostly in domestic matters. To be sure, Republican concerns were different back then; earlier in his career, as a Congressman, he had chaired the House Ways & Means Committee engineering the huge tariff increase of 1890 - in retaliation for which the voters threw him out office that November. But he was elected to the statehouse in Columbus the following year, and from that perch ascended to the White House in 1896.

In his new job, the 25th President had every intention of staying focused domestically, despite rising pressures internationally, In 1895 a rebellion against Spanish colonial rule erupted in Cuba, just 100 miles from Florida. American opinion was strongly sympathetic to the rebels. But McKinley, a veteran of the Civil War - he enlisted in 1861 as a private, served with distinction at Antietam and was mustered out in 1865 as a major - demurred from involvement. "I have been through one war," he said; "I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another." And in fact, a rich but frugal Uncle Sam was little equipped for defense, let alone attack; the U.S. Army numbered just 25,000 men, 14th largest in the world, behind Bulgaria. And the Navy, too, was the smallest among the great powers - a potentially risky situation for a country with three long coastlines to defend.

But that wasn't much of a concern of McKinley, at least not at first. In his inaugural address in March 1897, he declared, "We want no wars of conquest. We must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression."

But then history aggressed. The USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, killing 266 on board. That disaster, combined with ongoing revulsion against Spanish military tactics in Cuba, made anti-Spanish fervor irresistible; the penny press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer brimmed with headlines, "Spanish Cannibalism" and "Inhuman Torture." Even the establishment media was ready for war; The Atlantic Monthly argued that any notion that Spain was not behind the detonation was "completely in defiance of the laws of probability." (Decades later, in 1975, an investigation led U.S. Admiral Hyman Rickover concluded that the explosion was mostly likely an accident, touched off by accumulated coal dust near the boilers.)

But in '98, the rallying cry - "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!" - carried the day.

And so the war was fought, and of course, America won gloriously. Commodore Dewey annihilated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, and on July 1, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt charged up Kettle Hill during the Battle of San Juan Hill, just outside the town of Santiago de Cuba. In the immortal words of Secretary of State John Hay, the United States had its "splendid little war."

But even if "splendid" is not today the politically correct adjective to use about a war, what made the American victory so remarkable was the context in which it came to be regarded. As detailed in a new book, "First Great Triumph," by Warren Zimmermann, a career foreign service officer and onetime ambassador to Yugoslavia, the Spanish-American War validated a new school of thought, the so-called "large" policy for America, whose exponents included not only Hay and Roosevelt but also Secretary of War Elihu Root, naval officer/author Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican of Massachusetts. It's fair to say that these five men made the American Century.

It was Lodge who could proclaim, "We have a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion... unequalled by any people in the nineteenth century." But it was Roosevelt who most aptly captured the swell of sentiment after the Treaty of Paris in 1898, in which Spain ceded to the US not only Cuba, but also Puerto Rico and the Philippines; the American victory, T.R. declared, was the "first great triumph in what will be a world movement." But a movement needs momentum, intellectual, as well as military. In a stream of articles, speeches, and books, this quintet of Manifest Destinarians reshaped American strategic thinking, pointing the United States toward new ambitions, toward the annexing of Hawaii, the digging of the Panama Canal, and the building of a new blue-water fleet.

For his part, McKinley was modest, but he was happy enough to profit from the thinking, as well as the winning. "And so it came to pass that in a few short months," he said with some wonder, "we have become a world power." Inside the Republican Party the new deal was sealed in 1900, when Roosevelt, admired as a thinker as well as a doer, was installed as McKinley's running mate in his re-election bid.

But what of the voters? This nation of individualists and immigrants? What did they think about the new course of empire? Some, notably Mark Twain, were strongly opposed to the new expansionism. But the November 1900 balloting settled the debate; McKinley easily won a second term, significantly expanding his popular and electoral vote margins compared to 1896.

To be sure, the victorious McKinley had delivered on his campaign slogan of a "full dinner pail," but he had done something even more profound: he offered Americans - now numbering nearly 75 million - a new vision of themselves, united in common national purpose in the international arena. Wherever they came from, whatever their private beliefs - whether they were inspired by Hearst's blaring banner headlines or Mahan's footnoted historical tomes - they could all agree to rally 'round the red, white and blue of America's 45-star flag.

McKinley was assassinated in 1901, but the winning political formula lived on after him, embodied even better in the "muscular nationalism" of President Theodore Roosevelt. And Americans, old and new, bought into it. Republicans won five of the next seven presidential elections, from 1904-1928; indeed, that Republican streak might have carried on even further, had Herbert Hoover not done the same thing in 1930 that McKinley had done in 1890-pass a huge tariff increase that crumpled the economy.

And so to the present. The tragedy of 9-11 was enough to convince the overwhelming majority of Americans about the need to mobilize for a long struggle. And at the same time, just as Roosevelt & Co. clustered around McKinley to provide intellectual air support to the Republican regulars, so today a new group - including Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, and Richard Perle - have gathered around Bush, seeking to put the response to 9-11 in a larger strategic context, carrying the anti-terror crusade beyond Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, to Iraq, and perhaps even further.

Moreover, just as the "large" policy advocates of a century ago were a thought-leading bunch, the "neoconservatives" of today are prolific speakers and writers. They dominated the internal debate inside the Bush administration before the November 5 elections; now, strengthened by their political victories, they dominate the national debate, too. Indeed, new concepts, such as "pre-emption" and "democracy building," which once floated only through ivory towers and the pages of The Weekly Standard, are now being folded into American national policy, fitted into a world-girdling Bush Doctrine, which bids fair to transform the world in the 21st century, just as surely as American power transformed the 20th century.

As President Bush said, America didn't ask to fight a war on terror, but America aims to finish it. Even now, not all his fellow citizens support the new policy, but all must marvel at its power, here at home and around the world. And at the right hand of that power is Karl Rove. Years ago, he identified Bush as another McKinley. And so far, at least, he's got the whole scenario pegged, all the way down to the midterm shift from a president at peace to a president at war.



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