Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Stand Firm. The Tug Has to Come": Obama, Lincoln, and the Debt Ceiling

The Great Debt Ceiling Debacle is ended at last. So the angst-ridden grousing has commenced in earnest.

On what passes for the "left" in America, the main topic has been what many see as President Obama's capitulation to Republican intransigence. Many other observers, with far greater mastery of the policy details and political angles, will be hashing that matter out for weeks and months to come.

What I have found fascinating is how much Abraham Lincoln has been drawn into this. I've done it myself, in my last post.

More importantly, Obama himself did, in this video from March which the White House released in the midst of the debt ceiling negotiations.

In the most widely quoted section, Obama notes that Lincoln even compromised on the subject of slavery, since the Emancipation Proclamation exempted slaves still in the Union: "This notion that somehow if you're responsible and you compromise, that somehow you're giving up your convictions -- that's absolutely not true," Obama told the students.

Salon's Joan Walsh supported Obama on this point, despite her dissatisfaction with the then-emerging debt deal: "So if you're Obama looking to Lincoln as the man who tried to steer the United States through its worst domestic political crisis, and keep that crisis from destroying the country, what do you see? First, you see plenty of compromise."

John B. Judis in The New Republic disagreed, and argued that Obama got it wrong: "Obama turned one of Lincoln’s uncompromising acts of courage into a justification for compromise."

But Andrew Sullivan countered Judis, seeing Lincoln as a compromiser, too: "Funny, but my memory was that, for a long time, Lincoln did all he could to appease the South without conceding the whole ball-game. I see Obama in Lincoln's position. Not for the first time."

Perhaps the most eminent living historian of the Civil War, James McPherson, also backed up Obama: "Lincoln made a lot of compromises on other issues too. In fact, he was famous for knowing the art of the possible."

It is probably terribly unwise to do so, but I have to disagree (at least somewhat) with McPherson. Yes, Lincoln could and did compromise on many things. But he also knew when to stand firm. And that time is when you are faced with people who reject the legitimacy of the process.

The time when Lincoln faced the greatest pressure to compromise was actually before he became president. The mere election of a Republican president had sent the fire-eaters into a secessionist frenzy. A Congressional "Committee of Thirteen" (one more than the "super-Congress" committee set up by the debt ceiling deal) proposed a series of amendments to the Constitution meant to mollify the South (all touched on slavery, none involved a balanced budget) and which were to be, in a bizarre twist, unamendable in the future.

So what was Lincoln's attitude toward these proposals? On Dec. 10, 1860, only ten days before South Carolina would pass its ordinance of secession, he wrote to Sen. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois:
Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and ere long, must be done again.... Have none of it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, & better now, than any time hereafter.
Why was Lincoln so uncompromising? It was due to the specific stakes in this crisis. Southerners were threatening to leave the Union simply because Lincoln had been elected. They were rejecting the result of the constitutional process. That, Lincoln could not abide. On Jan. 11, 1861, he explained this to James T. Hale, a Republican member of the House from Pennsylvania:
We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government.
To compromise in this situation, he believed, was effectively to reverse the outcome of the election.

It would also, he argued, leave his administration open to endless repetition of the same political blackmail:
They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.... they shall never have a more shallow pretext for breaking up the government, or extorting a compromise, than now.
Lincoln saw the proposals for compromise in those dreadful months between his election and his inauguration for what they were: extortion. And he would have none of it.

Clearly the debt ceiling nonsense does not quite rise to the same level of seriousness as secession. But the tactics used by the Tea Party right were not dissimilar. It is already apparent that the lesson conservatives have taken from this deal is the one Lincoln predicted.

The Republican Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has already said so. This dispiriting, manufactured crisis, he said, has "set the template for the future. In the future, Neil, no president — in the near future, maybe in the distant future — is going to be able to get the debt ceiling increased without a re-ignition of the same discussion of how do we cut spending." He also made clear that the Republican representatives to the "super-Congress" committee will not agree to any tax increases.

And, largely unnoticed because of the threat of financial meltdown, a smaller version of this crisis is ongoing with the FAA which, technically, is no longer authorized to operate. Air traffic controllers remain on duty, but airfare taxes are not being collected (at a cost to the government of about $200 million a week), and construction has been halted on 200 projects.

Why? Because Republicans decided to use the heretofore routine reauthorization of the agency to force a diminution of union rights (sound familiar?).  The attitude of House Republicans will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the debt ceiling crisis: "Our position is the Senate has had our bill for weeks and they need to pass it," a senior House GOP source told Fox News. "There is no chance we'd take something different up."

We see the same utterly uncompromising attitude that typified the debt ceiling crisis: Give us what we want, or we'll shut the whole thing down. The stakes are lower (though real), but the tactic is the same.

We can expect the same thing from now on, every chance they get. Until it stops working. At some point, Obama, if he means to be like Lincoln, will need to decide that he will have none of it and stand firm. That the tug has to come, & better now, than any time hereafter.

[In my next post, I'll focus on Lincoln's compromising nature and its appeal for Obama.]

1 comment:

  1. One of the GOP's strengths is that they are willing to let it all fall apart. (I don't intend this as a positive aspect of their character.) The DEMs are poising themselves as unwilling. This is why the bullying continues. The DEMs need to point fingers and be specific about it. When the DEMs held all three majorities, their Healthcare bill was call a "hijacking", but when the GOP has 1/3 majority when don't hear any representation of the same.
    I appreciate that you use the abolition analogy in your posts because what we are seeing now is really about ideologies and taboo. I believe racism still plays a role in these current politics since the biggest "threat", i.e. Obama's socialist, progressive bent, has proven to be unrealized. People are uncomfortable to push this issue, and quite frankly I also got tired of hearing it in the beginning of his tenure. However, the GOP is acting in ways bizarre even for them and their block-headed T-P members.