While Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, has
undoubtedly enjoyed the praise he's receiving as the tactician behind last
week's Republican victories, his real concern is strategy: how to build a
Republican majority that will last not just for a single election day but
for a generation.
Along those lines, the Rove equation of George W. Bush and
William McKinley has received media attention, sometimes sarcastic, during
the past several years: Plunk "Rove" and "McKinley" into the Lexis/Nexis
data base, and over 200 references to articles citing both men show up.
What's commonly reported about the Rove paradigm is this:
McKinley won a narrow victory in 1896 but a big one in 1900, and five other
Republicans made the White House almost always a GOP preserve until 1933.
Republicans lost only when the party split in 1912, and Woodrow Wilson rode
in and then narrowly won re-election. Republicans went from squeaker to
repeated landslides by developing pro-growth policies with broad appeal.
Today's Republicans can go and do likewise.
What's not reported is that McKinley's strategy was political
but also moral: He refused to encourage class and ethnic warfare. His
opponent, William Jennings Bryan, leader of the Christian left in 1896 and
1900, tried to unite small farmers and urban workers in an attack on the
rich and a call for big government. Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's running
mate in 1900, said, "If Bryan wins, we have before us some years of social
misery not markedly different from that of any South American republic."
Specific policies McKinley proposed are irrelevant now in our
different economic circumstances, but it's the thought that counts: Don't
play to economic and ethnic animosities. The Bush/Rove appreciation of
compassionate conservatism has both a political and moral base: Appeals to
Hispanics and initiatives that can truly help the poor are important both to
winning elections and to avoiding South American-style class conflict.
GOP leaders can now make their party a true majority one if they
show the ability to protect us from foreign enemies and from themselves.
They will have to fight hard against tendencies to appease dictators abroad
and to become dictators themselves, dispensing rewards to their pals. They
can achieve tactical successes that way, but they will be strategically
successful only if they promote decentralization and deregulation so that
rich and poor Americans learn to help each other instead of turning to
government. They will have to fight hard against vested interests, including
Building for a generation requires a boldness that goes beyond
tactics and even beyond strategy. It reaches to a rare combination of
determination plus vision. Since politics is a collision sport, people
committed to political principle and not just ephemeral popularity have to
be willing to tackle the demagogues among both rich and poor who play to
class and ethnic hatred. They need to do all that without becoming
President Bush and Karl Rove have the vision, one they've
promoted since Bush was governor: compassionate conservatism, a vision of
rich and poor, and of whites, blacks and Hispanics, working together in
communities and developing their own plans from the bottom up. Liberals
often respond condescendingly to that vision, saying it's a nice thought but
maintaining their belief that a strong government hand is needed. They have
what Thomas Sowell termed "the vision of the anointed." They see themselves
as saviors of the poor but have become oppressors.
The compassionate conservative vision, though, emphasizes
faith-based and community initiatives rather than bureaucratic ones.
President Bush needs to continue to speak out on this, and at the same time,
he and Rove should develop a legislative strategy that makes more people
aware of the clash of visions. Republicans don't have to downplay ideas, for
they are now the party of new ideas that can help both rich and poor and
bring about a generation of GOP dominance.