The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters
Karl Rove, bestselling author of Courage and Consequence and visionary behind the Republican party’s last two presidential victories, has written a historical book worthy of current examination, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters (on sale November 24, 2015). Published one year before the next presidential election and to coincide with the beginning of the primary season in which 15 candidates are vying for the Republican nomination, the book offers a fresh look at the 1896 race between Democrat William Jennings Bryan and the man who defeated him and became the 25th president of the United States, Republican William McKinley.
The Triumph of William McKinley describes how the Civil War hero, who preferred “The Major” above any other title he was given, changed the arc of American history by running the first truly modern presidential campaign. Rove argues that the 1896 political environment resembles that of today: A rapidly changing electorate affected by a growing immigrant population, an uncertain economy disrupted by new technologies, growing income inequality, and contentious issues the two parties could not resolve. McKinley found ways to address these challenges. His victory ended a bitter period of political gridlock and reformed and modernized his party, thereby creating a governing majority that dominated American politics for the next thirty-six years.
Much of what we think we know about the 1896 election is wrong. This campaign was not led, as popular history holds, by Mark Hanna. The strategist behind the campaign was McKinley himself, a particularly skilled practical politician and thoughtful visionary. He, along with the help of a thirty-something Chicago entrepreneur, ran the biggest, most expensive campaign in history. The story of the 1896 campaign is one of an impressive marshaling of resources, careful targeting, surprising outreach, skillful use of new technologies, big gambles, and, most important of all, an audacious strategy and powerful, if potentially dangerous, message.
Matched in the general election against the dynamic and charismatic Democrat William Jennings Bryan, McKinley took the riskier course of accentuating the large differences with Bryan and offering bold and controversial answers to the nation’s most pressing challenges. For instance:
- Knowing his party could only win if it grew beyond its base, he reached out to diverse ethnic groups, including openly seeking the endorsement of Catholic leaders and advocating for black voting rights.
- Running on the slogan “The People Against the Bosses,” McKinley also took on the machine men who dominated his own party.
- He deployed campaign tactics still used today, including targeting voters with the best available technology.
- Above all, he offered bold, controversial answers to the nation’s most pressing challenge—how to make a new, more global economy work for every American—and although this split his own party, he won the White House by sticking to his principles and defeating a charismatic champion of economic populism, William Jennings Bryan.
The story of McKinley’s presidential campaign is a compelling drama in its own right, but it also offers important—and urgent—lessons for today.
~ Simon & Schuster
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