On the Democratic side, heading the ticket is a candidate known more for overblown, soapy rhetoric about class unfairness than for actually getting the economy moving, even with the nation stuck in torturous recession for four long years. In the vice-presidential spot is an Easterner with a dubious reputation who will go down as one of the most uninspired veep picks in history.
On the Republican side, the candidate for president is a successful former governor who’s a little wobbly on some key conservative items, in particular relating to whether it’s OK to keep devaluing the dollar. His vice-president will be the young, intellectual reformer who has lately captured the imagination of the party.
You can see it from a mile away: the election of 1896. In that year, the nation had been reeling from one of the nastiest economic crises it had ever seen. Economic output was still below what it had been four years earlier, when a terrible crash had occurred; the word “unemployment” had recently been introduced to track a phenomenon basically unheard of in the industrial revolution prior; and the election offered a chance for the electorate to weigh competing visions.
For the Democrats, the presidential candidate was former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan. During the 1896 campaign, Bryan crisscrossed the land as a buffoon, giving over-gesticulated speech after speech. His oration at the nominating convention has been called the most famous (if also ill-starred) speech in American political history. Here’s a line from that “Cross of Gold” speech:
“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”
Again, this is William Jennings Bryan in 1896, not you-know-who today.
For his running mate, Bryan chose Maine businessman and political naïf Arthur Sewall. The move was a ham-handed olive-branch to the establishment.
To head their ticket, the Republicans nominated former Ohio governor William McKinley. Party activists exhorted McKinley to campaign on stopping the currency debauchment of recent years, even as McKinley tried to be moderate on the question.
For his running mate, McKinley picked Garret Hobart, a New Jersey politician. Hobart would die in office, and McKinley would replace him with that young intellectual reformer—Theodore Roosevelt.
1896 turned out to be a turning point all right. On McKinley’s victory, the weird economic stagnation that had gripped the nation out of nowhere for the four years prior got wiped out by four straight years of 6% real growth. Over the dozen years after that, another 40% would be added to yearly economic output. McKinley’s presidency would be one of the most successful on record.
The funny thing about turning points is that you never know what you missed. If the unprecedented 1892-96 stagnation had continued, to this day the crash of 1892-93 would have represented a great juncture in American history, the marker before which things were booming and prosperous, and after which things were muddled and dreary.
We cannot say that a Bryan victory in 1896, which would have brought cheap money and progressive taxation, would have extended indefinitely into the future the mediocrity which was the previous four years. But we can say with certainty that the McKinley victory put an end to that mediocrity. The American economy roared out of its sluggishness once McKinley won, and for some time after that.
In office, McKinley scotched the income tax and re-committed the nation to the gold standard. These were the policies that in fact did accompany the rush out of zero growth, unemployment, and diminished opportunity that the electorate was getting used to by the time of the 1896 election. McKinley confronted that status quo with policies of sound money and getting the government out of the way, and the result was epic.
Today, in 2012, everyone except the elderly who experienced the very Great Depression of the 1930s is in effect looking at the sky and asking if this terrible spate of economic under-performance that we have been enduring since 2008 is here to stay. It would be so sad if it were to stay—so un-American.
William Jennings Bryan has gone down in history as one of American politics’ great fools—a “poor mountebank” as H.L. Mencken called him on his death at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Yet in time Bryan’s ideas would seep into policy, in the form of progressive taxation and greenback money-printing from the Federal Reserve.
In our election this year, we seem to have as clear a chance as ever to vote for Bryan’s heir. We have the option of fulfilling Bryan’s wish of institutionalizing governmental dominance in monetary and business affairs in the face of protracted economic stagnation, all accompanied by greasy populist rhetoric from leadership.
But with Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan as running mate, it also looks like we have a William McKinley on offer. We’ll soon know if 2012 will join 1896 as the year everybody forgot—because America got back to the business of prosperity and success so quickly thereafter that it became a blip on the timeline of progress. We do well to remember that 1896 is a footnote in the great narrative of American politics and history because William Jennings Bryan lost to a serious and clear-eyed rival.
Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Originally published at Forbes.com the essay is reprinted here with gracious permission of Brian Domitrovic.