Mediacrats on the morning after Election Day threw out praise for the tactical skills of President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove. The GOP had a good get-out-the-vote ground game, they said. Mr. Bush's coattails were spread out to perfection, they said. Etc.
But Mr. Rove knows well that a tactical win is short-lived. The real question for him 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, often sarcastic, during the past several years: Plunk "Karl Rove" and "William McKinley" into the Lexis/Nexis database and over 150 references to articles with both figures 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 went on to win the White House until 1932. Republicans lost only when the party split in 1912 and Woodrow Wilson rode in, and then narrowly won reelection. The GOP went from squeaker to repeated landslides by recognizing the importance of the new industrial economy and developing pro-growth domestic and foreign 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."
The particular policies McKinley proposed, such as tariffs, are irrelevant now in our different economic circumstances, but it's the thought that counts: Don't play to class 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 those South AmericanÐtype conflicts.
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 Americans of diverse groups learn to depend on and help each other instead of turning to government. They will have to fight hard against vested interests, including their own.
Building for a generation requires a boldness that goes beyond tactics and even beyond strategy. It reaches to a rare commodity indeed: vision.