Karl Rove – the Fox News analyst and architect of George W. Bush’s political victories -- was standing literally in the shadow of the McKinley Monument last weekend. He was in Canton to press the point of his new book: that the modern GOP has a lot to learn from one of Ohio’s often overlooked presidents. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has more on why Rove sees William McKinley as a better model for these political times than Donald Trump.
Upstairs at the McKinley Presidential Library, the animatronic Bill and Ida McKinley map out a pretty simple version of his 1896 campaign. He ran from his front-porch in Canton. People got to know him and like him -- and his plans for America. (Plus Ida liked having him close to home a lot.)
Downstairs, as he signs more than 100 copies of his book, “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters,” Karl Rove acknowledges it’s more complicated than that.
McKinley’s front porch extended well beyond Canton thanks to a media campaign. Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna developed a system to encourage large campaign contributions. McKinley mapped out an early Southern strategy and hired a young political whiz named Gerald Dawes to swing Illinois his way.
A changing America
But more important than anything else, Rove argues, McKinley understood what was happening to America.
“McKinley understood the changing demography of the country included a lot of people who were Catholic, urban industrial workers. Many from parts of the world that had not been sources of big migration before like Central and Southern and Eastern Europe. So McKinley is a modernizer.”
A modernizer, Rove says, who knew how to capitalize on the changes.
"He does that by taking on the big issues and finding a way to craft messages about them, to craft language about them, that allows him to draw people to him.”
A message for today
Rove insists, many in the crowded GOP field today understand that --even if front-runner Donald Trump does not.
“It’s a wide range of people. You have a Jeb Bush and a Rand Paul. You have a John Kasich and a Chris Christie. You have a Marco Rubio. These are most of the major characters who have said, in order to win the 2016 presidential election, we need to get into our camp people who have not normally voted for us whether they be Asian Americans or Latinos or African Americans or young people. And all of them have been pushing that in their own quiet ways."
He acknowledges, though, that the candidate with the biggest megaphone, Donald Trump, is not among those voices.
“But the guy who’s got the megaphone in the room has not been pursuing that?
"But he’s got a high floor low ceiling as a result. The candidate who will win the Republican nomination is not the candidate who gets an average in “Real Clear Politics“ of 28 percent. It’s going to be the guy who says, ‘I’m going to be able to unify the other 72 percent around me.'"
Rove reeled off other parallels between 1896 and now, including tension between McKinley supporter Mark Hanna and the press.
Not that media bias plays a role, but Williams Randolph Hearst knew that McKinley’s character was so exceptional that if they attacked McKinley that they would fail.
So he said to his reporters, don’t attack McKinley, attack Hanna. And he told his cartoonist, … depict Mark Hanna as an obese man in a suit of dollar bills, and McKinley always as his midget or his puppet.”
But Rove repeatedly returned to the parallel he says matters most: “To grow our party we’ve got to attract people to it not drive people away.”
History and politics and a place for Trump
Jim Fidler is a Republican from Canton, drawn more to the book signing by the history than the politics. But like Rove, he hopes the modern GOP gets the McKinley message.
“They have to understand the growing influence of the Latino population, people coming in from Europe, from Asia -- that they bring tremendous talent, tremendous abilities.”
Some in the crowd of nearly all 1) Republicans or 2) people buying Christmas gifts for Republicans, pressed the Fox News analyst for more than an autograph.
“So what’s the defining characteristic we should look for in this one?" one asks.
Rove responds, "This is going to be a wild and very close election." Another attempt to pin him down is answered by, "The winner will be the one that unites the country.”
Still, some of those in line said Trump has his place in the 2016 campaign. Dentist Jim Karlowicz (whose wife Connie bought several copies of Rove’s book – including one for a prize at a GOP Lincoln Day Dinner) is among them.
“I particularly wouldn’t care to have him as president, but he adds a certain flavor and ideas to the entire mix and I appreciate the fact that he’s there.”
Rove is clearly far less appreciative. His SuperPAC, Crossroads GPS, has already spent $6 million on “purple state” senatorial races – including that of Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, which are expected be harder to win if Donald Trump leads the ticket.