Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Great Compromisers

As much as anything, Barack Obama has tried to cultivate an image as a reasonable man of compromise. As I noted in my last post, he has even made the case that his model for presidential leadership, Abraham Lincoln, compromised in the act of emancipation.

Lincoln himself had a political role model, Henry Clay. According to Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald, Lincoln "almost worshipped Henry Clay." Clay was Lincoln's "beau ideal of a statesman," and Lincoln referred to himself as "an avowed Clay man."
Henry Clay, "The Great Compromiser"

Clay is best known as "The Great Compromiser" for his central role in the three most dangerous political crises of the antebellum era. In 1820, he engineered the Missouri Compromise. In 1833, he worked on a tariff compromise that allowed South Carolina to back down from its nullification and prevented the use of force against the state by Andrew Jackson.  And in 1850, he put together the package of proposals that later became the Compromise of 1850.

As a Clay man and compromiser, Lincoln exhibited the same kind of frustration with ideological purity that Obama does. In 1845, he took to task the abolitionists for their purist attitude in the election of 1844. Clay was the Whig nominee, and barely lost the election to James K. Polk. New York (the largest state at the time) made the difference in the electoral college: "If the whig abolitionists of New York had voted with us last fall, Mr. Clay would now be president, whig principles in the ascendant, and Texas not annexed."

Lincoln showed clear disdain for the abolitionist rationale: "We are not to do evil that good may come." Why did they see voting for Clay as evil? Clay had, for political reasons, suggested he might be open to the annexation of Texas (thereby increasing the number of slave states), so abolitionists had opposed his candidacy and thrown their votes to a third party, thus giving the presidency to the clearly pro-annexation and pro-slavery Polk. To Lincoln, this was utterly foolish: "An evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit. If the fruit of electing Mr. Clay would have been to prevent the extension of slavery, could the act of electing have been evil?" Abolitionists, he said, "could have prevented" the evil of annexation "without violation of principle, if they had chosen."

Lincoln himself could put political expediency over his personal preferences. Four years later, in 1848, Lincoln threw his support to Gen. Zachary Taylor, favoring him over Clay for purely practical political reasons:
I am in favor of Gen. Taylor as the whig candidate for president because I am satisfied we can elect him.... I go for him, not because I think he would make a better president than Clay, but because I think he would make a better one than [any of the potential Democratic candidates] one of whom is sure to be elected if he is not. 
(With murmurs of a primary challenge to Obama rising from the left, this is one Lincoln quotation the president might want to see spread widely.)

This is the Lincoln that Obama finds so appealing, because he is so much like Obama himself. We can hear in Lincoln's reproach to the abolitionists Obama's complaints about the Huffington Post, and his press secretary's grousing about the "professional left." This is the rational, deliberate, cautious politician who always keeps his eyes on the political prize, who chooses the greater, long-term good over the immediately satisfying act of self-righteousness.

Lincoln, like Obama, had faith in the ultimately rational nature of his political opponents. When he was running for president in 1860 and the fire-eaters threatened secession were he to be elected, Lincoln dismissed the possibility: "The people of the South have too much of good sense, and good temper, to attempt the ruin of the government, rather than see it administered as it was administered by the men who made it. At least, I hope and believe."

This is the same attitude Obama expressed last December when he was asked about the possibility of Republicans using the threat of not raising the debt ceiling to force acceptance of their policies: "Here's my expectation, and I'll take John Boehner at his word, that nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse."

Neither Lincoln nor Obama could really imagine political opponents who would not, in the end, be reasonable.

Lincoln was convinced that Southerners would never go through with secession, because secession would mean civil war, with the South losing. In a speech in Cincinnati in September 1859, Lincoln presciently explained the likely outcome of such a war:
man for man, you are not better than we are, and there are not so many of you as there are of us. You will never make much of a hand at whipping us. If we were fewer in numbers than you, I think that you could whip us; if we were equal it would likely be a drawn battle; but being inferior in numbers, you will make nothing by attempting to master us.
To Lincoln, this scenario was so obvious that it all but precluded secession--secession would be self-defeating and thus irrational--just as Obama believed that no one would risk the self-destructive consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling.

Lincoln clung to the hope of an eventual return to rationality even after secession was a fact. According to James McPherson, during the early weeks of his presidency, prior to Fort Sumter, Lincoln agreed with Secretary of State Seward's proposal that the administration "ought to be conciliatory, forbearing and patient, and so open the way for the rise of a Union party in the seceding states which will bring them back into the Union."

"As late as July 1861," McPherson writes, "Lincoln expressed doubt 'whether there is, to-day, a majority of the legally qualified voters of any State, except perhaps South Carolina, in favor of disunion.'"

Lincoln kept hoping that reason would prevail. But it did not.

Despite two and half years of obstruction and brinksmanship, Obama remains convinced reason will prevail among Republicans in Congress. Just yesterday, he appealed yet again for "common sense and compromise." He once more tried to be bipartisan: "Republicans and Democrats on the bipartisan fiscal commission that I set up put forth good proposals. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate’s Gang of Six came up with some good proposals." The problem, he said, is "the insistence on drawing lines in the sand, a refusal to put what’s best for the country ahead of self-interest or party or ideology."

Obama seems determined to refuse to give up this belief in the possibility of compromise, no matter how unreasonable his opposition is. That is admirable. I'm sure it is what he thinks Lincoln would do. But in agreeing to Seward's appeal to be "conciliatory, forbearing and patient," Lincoln also said the following: "We mean to be as deliberate and calm about it as it is possible to be, but as firm and resolved as it is possible for men to be."

For Lincoln, that meant being unmovable on principle: he would not allow the extension of slavery into new territories (he would agree to "no compromise which assists or permits the extension") and he would not accept secession. "By no act or complicity of mine," Lincoln said during the secession crisis, "shall the Republican party become a mere sucked egg, all shell and no principle in it."

When faced with the implacable opposition of ideologues, people who had abandoned rational politics, Lincoln knew he had to stand firm.

Obama, if he is to be a successful president, needs to decide what, for him, is essential. He then needs to tell all of us, supporters and detractors alike, what that is. And he must stick to it.

Last month, in the midst of tense negotiations, Obama is reported to have said to House Minority Leader Eric Cantor: "Eric, don't call my bluff. I'm going to the American people on this." At issue was Cantor's resistance to any tax increase: "[The president] said Cantor could not have it both ways of insisting on dollar-for-dollar and still not being open to revenues."

We now know, of course, that there would be no new revenues in the deal Obama eventually accepted. Cantor called his bluff, and it was a bluff.

We can disagree on how great a compromiser Lincoln was, but one thing I think is certain: he did not bluff. He made clear what he would accept, and what he would not.  Then he followed through. As his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, once put it: "He was a terribly firm man when he set his foot down."

Obama needs to emulate that side of Lincoln, too.

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