On this President’s Day weekend, isn’t it ironic to realize that our greatest President almost certainly could not win election in this day and age?
Abraham Lincoln’s status as “greatest” was recently reaffirmed in a poll of presidential historians. The criteria for “greatness,” of course, vary, even among historians. Despite the occasional revisionist history exposing his human flaws, Lincoln’s “greatness” remains a great American constant.
Imagine, however, if the Lincoln of history were to seek the presidency today.
Could he be nominated? If so, by which party? Would today’s Republican party accept as its nominee the man who turned loose all those black people? Would the wall-builders and Muslim-haters accept a guy who called for this nation to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, . . . to bind up the nation's wounds.” And most assuredly, the union-busting GOP would never today nominate so eloquent a pro-labor spokesman as Lincoln.
His pro-labor stance alone might have endeared him as a candidate to the old Democratic party, but would be a millstone around the neck of anyone seeking favor among today’s corporate-beholden Democrats. Lincoln was a master politician, skilled at building coalitions and temporary alliances to achieve his goals. Even he would have great difficulty today seizing the nomination of a party controlled by neoliberal hawks and paid partisans of Wall Street.
But even assuming that he might somehow be able today to win nomination by one of the major parties, how would he fare in a general election with the electorate that voted in November of last year?
Lincoln’s command of language and brilliant legal mind reduced complex issues to their essence, but not to simplicities and relative absurdities. Read the texts of his debates with Douglas. While they resonate with famous quotations, they cannot be reduced to sound bytes. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” may be easy for schoolchildren to remember, but it was only the beginning of a tightly-reasoned appeal to the border states to resist the siren call to secession. Lincoln saw his paramount duty to be the preservation of the union. The Douglas debates — and the analyses of Lincoln’s positions by the nation’s thought leaders and men of letters — shaped the national understanding of the man it elected in its darkest hour.
Such complexities are beyond the ken of the people who decided the 2016 presidential election. They were moved by slogans, sound bytes, Barnum blarney and lies. The American political scene in Lincoln’s day was not without such boorish antics. There were those on each side who spoke only in epithets, who could understand only demagoguery. But they never carried the day. When a batch of pro-Douglas ruffians shouted obscenities in front of the dais when Lincoln prepared to speak at Freeport, a key adviser whispered in his ear, “Ignore them, Lincoln. They only damage the other side.”
“Gorilla” was among the kinder epithets his enemies shouted at campaign rallies when he ran for president. His prairie accent, his high-pitched voice, his humble beginnings — all begat scorn and slander from people who opposed him.
Their 2016 equivalents — “Lock her up!” . . . “Crooked Hillary” . . . “Build the Wall” and worse — won the election for a racist, cheating narcissist. Imagine what they’d have done to a decent man like Lincoln.