The Message From 1896?

WE TAKE YOU BACK A CENTURY: A HUNDRED years ago, William Jennings Bryan delivered his ""cross of gold'' speech -- denouncing the gold standard -- at the Democratic National Convention and embarked upon what became a fateful political campaign. When it was over, not only had Bryan lost the presidency to William McKinley, but his defeat began nearly four decades of Republican domination. Until 1932 there was only one Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, and Republicans controlled the Senate in all but six years and the House in all but eight. The election of 1896 triggered one of America's great political ""realignments.''

What makes it relevant now is that, less than two years ago, many Republicans imagined that 1996 might bring a similar upheaval. They had just captured Congress; they would retake the White House; the Democrats would slump into minority status. Oh, boy. To put it gently, this sort of speculation now looks like a long shot. Bob Dole trails President Clinton by roughly 15 to 20 points in polls. Anti-Republican sentiment could jeopardize their control of one or both chambers of Congress. What happened to their ""realignment''? A glance back at 1896 provides some clues.

Let's be clear about one thing: the Republicans' troubles don't stem from dramatic changes in Americans' basic views. The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research has compared NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys from October 1994 and May 1996. On many issues, the Republican appeal hasn't eroded. Respondents were asked which party ""would do a better job'' on various matters. On controlling government spending, the Republicans won 43 to 15; in 1994, their advantage was only 34 to 21. The Republicans also retained large leads on taxes (34-25) and crime (31-21). The Democrats' lead on the environment, 45 to 17, was roughly the same as in 1994. Only on Medicare had the Democratic lead widened sharply; it was 45 to 26 in 1996, up from 33 to 22 in 1994.

What hurts the Republicans is the same problem that afflicted Bryan in 1896: too much ideological fervor can boomerang. In that election, Bryan was the candidate of passion and ideas. At 36, he was the spellbinding ""Boy Orator.'' ""You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,'' he thundered. ""Probably no man in civil life has succeeded in inspiring so much terror, without taking life, as Bryan,'' noted one commentator. It was not simply that he opposed the gold standard (currency backed by gold), which was widely supported by the economic elite. His self-righteousness fed fears and uncertainty about what he might do as president.

In politics, there's a fine line between too much conviction and too little. Too little seems cynical. Too much seems threatening, because it suggests being closed to argument and other people's views. Bryan crossed that line; so, apparently, have many Republicans. They're self-styled ""revolutionaries.'' And the religious right also finds its main home in the Republican Party. The Republicans have a surplus of moralism and a scarcity of tolerance. And that is bound to seem menacing to anyone who shares some, but not all, of their views. Inevitably, Clinton has fanned these anxieties. So the Republicans' overall approval ratings have dropped. In January 1995, the NBC/WSJ poll reported that 50 percent of Americans felt positively about Republicans; by June 1996, only 36 percent did.

But Republican hopes for a major party realignment may always have been overblown. Parties seem to suffer generational oblivion only through some massive social calamity. Like the realignment of 1932 (when Franklin Roosevelt forged a new majority of industrial workers, blacks and the elderly), the upheaval of 1896 was preceded by a huge economic crisis. Indeed, the depression of the 1890s may rank behind only the Great Depression of the 1930s in severity. Between 1894 and 1897, unemployment averaged 15 percent. Farmers reeled from falling prices. In 1891, a bushel of wheat sold for 96 cents; by 1895, the price was 60 cents.

Bryan responded to this economic collapse. Gold was too scarce, he said. Debtors were crushed by deflation (falling prices). Get rid of the straitjacket. For Bryan, the appeal snagged on two problems. First, Democrats had controlled the White House and Congress since 1893, so they were blamed for the depression. And second, an anti-gold clamor earlier in the decade had worsened the depression by triggering a run on gold stocks.

What matters now, of course, is that there is no economic ""crisis'' -- not of the type of the 1890s or the 1930s. The Republi-cans face the opposite problem: they're challenging an incumbent when unemployment is low, profits are high and consumers are optimistic. In 1996 the economy's output will hit an estimat- ed $7.6 trillion, up about 12 percent from 1990 after adjusting for inflation. Such prosperity hardly seems to bode a political convulsion.

It may be that, given Americans' distrust of government and politicians, we have entered an era in which neither party is dominant. Or it may not. A lot of what cemented the realignment of 1896 wasn't foreseen at the time. In the late 1890s, the economy recovered. But that wasn't McKinley's doing. Gold supplies grew rapidly and propelled expansion. McKinley won re-election in 1900 and was assassinated. He was succeeded by Teddy Roosevelt, a progressive who co-opted some social protest. Parties splintered by regions. The Republicans, brandishing high tariffs, appealed to the industrial Northeast and Midwest. The Democrats, protecting white supremacy, reigned in the South.

All this became clear with hindsight. In politics, never ignore the power of accident, coincidence and timing. We can rarely glimpse the future. Between now and November, the campaign will inspire much cocky commentary (some of it in this space) with an intellectual shelf life of between 36 hours and 36 days. So maybe Dole will win, or the Republicans will keep control of Congress, or there will be a major realignment -- for the Democrats. The real message of 1896 is that we can't write history before it happens; and even then, it may be years before we know what it means.