Karl Rove, or so they say, likes to think of himself as Mark Hannah to George W. Bush’s William McKinley. Now I think there’s a revisionist scholarship on McKinley (there is on everything) but in a vulgar context like a strategist talking to reporters, I think it’s safe to say he was talking about the traditional view of McKinley. Why make an analogy like this? There are some similarities. McKinley one in an election marked by a sharp regional divide (albeit by winning what is roughly the reverse set of states; it’s also interesting, if you look at it, to see how overwhelmingly William Jennings Bryan won the rocky mountain states) and established a string of wins for the GOP. McKinley, like Bush, was more a pro-business than a pro-market guy. McKinley, like Bush, fought a “splendid little war” on dubious pretexts, and John Judis has analogized the second Gulf War to the Philippines conflict. And as Bush is constantly harassed by erstwhile co-partisan John McCain, McKinley faced competition from McCain’s idol, Teddy Roosevelt. The analogy even goes deeper as Roosevelt disagreed with McKinley on many matters domestic, but liked his muscular approach abroad and, indeed, wanted to make it more muscular.
But there’s the rub. The relevant era was dominated by Roosevelt, not McKinley. McKinley wins the 1896 election but soon enough he and his GOP “regulars” are getting worried by the more dynamic, more popular reformer, Roosevelt. They make him the VP nominee for the 1900 re-election campaign hoping to kill two birds with one stone; they’ll gain some of his popularity, but take away all of his substantive power. McKinley, unfortunately, gets killed and Roosevelt becomes president, implementing a significantly more progressive agenda. Roosevelt is re-elected in a landslide and, as the youngest president ever, stands an excellent shot at winning a third term. But he declines in favor of his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, who goes on to win in 1908. Unfortunately for Roosevelt, Taft turns out to be more McKinley’s heir than his own (again there’s a revisionist literature here, but that’s how it was seen at the time). Roosevelt tries to recapture the GOP nomination in 1912, but the party is in control of the bosses and he fails. So Roosevelt mounts a third party campaign, finishing an unprecedented second in a three way race, and throwing control of the White House to Woodrow Wilson.
It’s not a sequence of events that reflects especially well on the McKinley-Hannah complex of political leaders. Other realigning presidents (Jackson, Lincoln, F. Roosevelt, Nixon [?]) built political coalitions that endured, and passed control of their party on to ideologically sympatico figures. McKinley had the party hijacked by his rival almost immediately, regular Republican re-control was established purely through TR’s misjudgment of the situation, and then the party fell apart in a manner without precedent in American history. Unlike other realigners, moreover, he left no real national legacy — his great accomplishment was a prolongation of the gold standard era by a few decades. Indeed, the only thing about the narrative that actually seems appealing from a Rovian perspective is that in virtue of McKinley’s untimely death, Mark Hannah rather than McKinley, actually emerges as the key “regular” figure in this saga. Modeling his boss on McKinley, in other words, seems more like a consequence of Rove’s ego than of any kind of sound political instincts.
Another reason, I think, to doubt that the Boy Genius is really any kind of genius at all as opposed to a guy who lucked into a poorly designed ballot in Palm Beach County.