Thursday, August 25, 2011

Memo to Mitt: It's Not the House

Liberals have had some fun this week at Mitt Romney's expense after the Washington Post reported that Romney "is planning to nearly quadruple the size of his $12 million California beachfront mansion." Rachel Maddow had a segment on her program Tuesday arguing that Romney was going "full Thurston"--a reference to Thurston Howell III, the millionaire castaway played by Jim Backus on the 1960s sitcom "Gilligan's Island."

David Frum tweeted on Monday: "I hope none of those people criticizing Mitt Romney's house voted for John Kerry." Romney's net worth is somewhere between $190 and $250 million dollars, according to his campaign, and Kerry's was estimated to be at least $167 million in 2009, so the two are certainly comparable.

Frum seems to think this is an argument-ender: if you supported Kerry's candidacy, you can't be critical of Romney. But he misses something essential: the problem is not that Romney is rich. It is that he is rich and advocates policies that primarily advance the interests of the rich.

Americans have never had a problem with having wealthy political leaders. George Washington, according to biographer Joseph Ellis, had an "insatiable hunger for land" (at his death he had land in five states, the District of Columbia, and the Ohio territory) and was when he died "one of the richest men in America."

Andrew Jackson was also a wealthy man who had extensive landholdings and dabbled in a wide variety of business ventures. Robert Remini tells us that by the time he first ran for president in 1824, Jackson "was a fairly rich man." (Like Washington, Jackson also owned more than a hundred human beings held as slaves.) That is not, of course, how Americans remember Jackson: he remains the champion of the "common man." Policies, not personal wealth, are what people care about.

We see the same thing in the 20th century: three of the wealthiest presidents were Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. These are not men who, like Washington and Jackson, made their own fortunes. They were all three born to wealth (as Romney was). By and large, Americans did not hold their inherited wealth against them, precisely because they made themselves into champions of the average person.

TR made his mark as a powerful president by taking on J. P. Morgan's Northern Securities railroad trust (the case that gave him the misleading nickname of "trust-buster"). Most Americans never knew that Morgan made his peace with TR and even contributed to his campaign in 1904. They knew TR intervened in a United Mine Workers strike that resulted in higher wages and lower hours, and that he signed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act to protect consumers.

FDR, it need hardly be pointed out, was considered a "traitor to his class" for his efforts to alleviate the ravages of the Great Depression. He denounced "business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking" and "Government by organized money." In his 1936 speech accepting the Democratic nomination, FDR said:
we will continue to seek to improve working conditions for the workers of America--to reduce hours over-long, to increase wages that spell starvation, to end the labor of children, to wipe out sweatshops. Of course we will continue every effort to end monopoly in business, to support collective bargaining, to stop unfair competition, to abolish dishonorable trade practices.
When political leaders talk (and more importantly, act) in this way, no one cares how much personal wealth they have.

JFK was also born in wealth, but he ran in 1960 as the champion of FDR's New Deal. Like his predecessors, he knew that policies exclusively favoring the wealthy were self-defeating: "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

What sorts of policies does Romney advocate?

On extending unemployment benefits, he's against it: "The indisputable fact is that unemployment benefits, despite a web of regulations, actually serve to discourage some individuals from taking jobs, especially when the benefits extend across years." The implication is that there are plenty of jobs available, and people just are not taking them. He should try telling that to the thousands of people who camped out for a job fair in Atlanta last week.

On the payroll tax cut that President Obama insisted on last December: "only the employee's payroll taxes [are] reduced — the portion paid by the employer is to remain the same.... the payroll tax deal will add to the deficit." (Romney did not note that extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which he supports, also adds to the deficit--evidently only tax cuts for regular folks do that.)

On extending that payroll tax cut: "Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did not flatly rule out an extra year for the payroll tax cut, but he 'would prefer to see the payroll tax cut on the employer side' to spur job growth, his campaign said." It's not clear if that means adding an employer tax cut to the worker's cut, or raising the employee's taxes and giving the break instead to the employer, but it sounds like the latter.

This is the context for the reaction to Romney's new California mansion. Americans do not begrudge their leaders their wealth. They do have a problem with people who say tax cuts are only for wealthy "job creators" and who think unemployment insurance makes people lazy. And rightly so. You reap what you sow, Mitt.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Politics End at the Water's Edge"--Yeah, Right

The old maxim "politics ends at the water's edge" has always been an exaggeration, if not a flat-out falsehood. The idea is that while Americans may quarrel among themselves about domestic politics, when it comes to foreign affairs, there is no partisanship. Americans show a united face to the rest of the world.

As a historian of American diplomacy, I can tell you that, as a rule, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there is a tendency to "rally around the president" in moments of crisis, but that usually ends as soon as the crisis does. And yes, there are some moments when it is true, as when Democratic president Harry Truman convinced the Republican Congress in 1947 to approve the Truman Doctrine aid to Greece and Turkey, as well as the economic development program known as the "Marshall Plan."

More often than not, however, foreign policy has proven divisive in American history. Even the most prominent example of bipartisan cooperation noted above, the Marshall Plan, proves that point. It was packaged by the Truman administration as Secretary of State George Marshall's plan precisely because, as a former general, Marshall was seen as a nonpartisan figure. They were afraid the "Truman Plan" would get voted down.

This all came to mind while watching the events in Tripoli last night. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a statement, part of which reads as follows:
This achievement was made possible first and foremost by the struggle and sacrifice of countless Libyans, whose courage and perseverance we applaud. We also commend our British, French, and other allies, as well as our Arab partners, especially Qatar and the UAE, for their leadership in this conflict. Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower.
As Andrew Sullivan's Dish points out, they make a point of "Praising Everyone But The Commander In Chief." President Obama's name does not appear at all in the statement. The only reference to him is the critical dig at "the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower."

The slight is reminiscent at how many conservatives pointedly refused to credit the president for getting Osama bin Laden. Conservative billionaire David Koch, for example, said "all that Obama did was say 'yea' or 'nay,' we’re going to take him out or not. I don’t think he contributed much at all." Sarah Palin credited "all the brave men and women in our military and our intelligence services" without mentioning the president, which the Guardian called "both churlish and in character."

Current Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain all issued statements that pointedly ignored Obama. (To their credit, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich, as well as Speaker of the House John Boehner, did congratulate the president.)

It is perfectly reasonable to question the president's policy. I had my own doubts about Obama's intervention in Libya, but it was indeed "churlish," on the day the rebellion reached Tripoli, for McCain and Graham to reiterate their policy criticism. At this point, it seems that Obama's policy, which has often been ridiculed because aides used the phrase "leading from behind" to describe it, has helped produce the successful toppling of one of the world's worst (and most bizarre) dictators. At the cost of not a single American life.

You might think that, at such a moment, the president's critics could actually let politics end at the water's edge. But you'd be wrong.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Tea Party and "Republican Virtue"

The Tea Party proclaims that it is the embodiment of the American desire to return to ideals of the founders of the United States. While strict constitutionalism is a common position of the various self-proclaimed Tea Partiers, the founding generation in fact argued quite a bit about what the Constitution meant. But there was a more fundamental concept that the founders of the United States did largely agree upon: the one I noted in my previous post, "republican virtue."

The essence of that quality was selflessness in politics, a concern not with personal interests but a devotion to the public good. As Gordon Wood puts it in his classic work, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, "The eighteenth-century mind was thoroughly convinced that a popularly based government 'cannot be supported without Virtue.'"

Wood tells us in Empire of Liberty that the founding generation of Americans believed that "republics had to hold themselves together from the bottom up, ultimately, from their citizens' willingness to take up arms to defend their country and to sacrifice their private desires for the sake of the public good--from their 'disinterestedness,' which was a popular synonym for virtue."

Essential to this concept of the "public good" was the understanding of the interdependence of citizens:
Republicanism, with its emphasis on devotion to the transcendent public good, logically presumed a legislature in which various groups in the society would realize 'the necessary dependence and connection' each had upon the others.
There is, in this mentality, no devotion to any particular policy outcome. The devotion is to the general welfare, and a respect for the views of others in reaching an understanding of what the public good is.

It is hard to reconcile the uncompromising spirit of the Tea Party with this mindset. Take, for example, this expression of Tea Party fury over the debt ceiling deal:
I do not want to cut a deal with the people who wish to enslave me. I do not want to cut a deal with those who would take the greatness of America and flush it down the sewer. I do not want to cut a deal with those who think I only live to serve the state.
There is no "disinterestedness" here--only a single-minded determination to achieve a specific policy result at any cost, and the demonization of those with whom the author disagrees (the "Obama regime" and Republicans who "sold us out").

When we look at the state of our politics over the last eight months (since the newly-arrived members of Congress started asserting their influence), it resembles nothing more than what the revolutionary generation saw as the consequence of the lack of republican virtue:
Without some portion of this generous principle, anarchy and confusion would immediately ensue, the jarring interests of individuals, regarding themselves only, and indifferent to the welfare of others, would still further heighten the distressing scene, and with the assistance of the selfish passions, it would end in the ruin and subversion of the state.
Revisiting today this concept of republican virtue is a useful reminder of the foundational premises that lie beneath the structure created by the American Constitution. Wood tells us that the founders believed that "an equality of condition was essential for republicanism.... All took for granted that a society could not long remain republican if a tiny minority controlled most of the wealth and the bulk of the population remained dependent servants or poor landless laborers."

The great irony today is that these self-proclaimed guardians of the founding principles are putting their most fervent efforts into preserving precisely the condition that the founders themselves felt would lead to the collapse of a republican system. In their day, though not in ours, "it was commonly understood that 'the exorbitant wealth of individuals' had a 'most baneful influence' on the maintenance of republican governments and 'therefore should be carefully guarded against.'"

It is in this context that we should think about Warren Buffett's much discussed op-ed in this past Monday's New York Times. Buffet concludes clearly and unequivocally with a selfless call for "My friends and I" who "have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress" to be taxed. "It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice."

In rising above his personal interest, and that of his economic class, Buffett exhibits the kind of disinterestedness the founders believed essential to self-government. President Obama, in his calls this week for members of Congress to rise above party for the good of the country and in his willingness to cut programs near and dear to Democrats, has done the same.

The ones standing in the way are the Tea Partiers, who in their ignorance of the actual political values of the founders, violate those values every day with their extremism and uncompromising posturing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

" ... to select men of virtue and wisdom."

My good friend, former college roommate, poet, lawyer, and blogger Bill Carleton raised an interesting issue in response to my recent posts on President Obama:
I'm a sucker for the great man theory. And I'm fascinated by the stories of US Presidents and the saga of their successions.... But I'm coming to think that our problems are structural. I'm beginning to wonder whether the dysfunction of the federal government is not a reflection of the lack of greatness or character of the men and women on the current political scene, as much as of an indication that the particular form of federalism established by the US Constitution has outlived its usefulness.
I've been giving this some thought, and while I'm grateful for (and a little embarrassed by) Bill's effusive praise of this blog, I have to say that I disagree.

First, I would say that my recent posts have not really been "great man theory" history. I am not one of those who think that Obama could, say, give a great speech and somehow solve our intractable political problems. My case is more modest--that, given the nature of the opposition, the president needs to adjust his tactics.

The structural argument, I think, is one that naturally appeals to us when we become frustrated with the way our system of governance is working (or, more appropriately, not working). But eventually, the underlying politics that created gridlock shifts, the paralysis lifts, the system works again, and we forget about the idea that the structure of government was at fault.

Probably the most recent manifestation of that mentality in our history was in the mid- to late-1970s. In the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, confidence in American government was at a low ebb. With rampant inflation and high unemployment ("stagflation") exacting a terrible economic toll with no obvious solution in sight, some people argued that the job of the presidency had become too big. A respondent to a CBS-New York Times poll in 1976 said: "The President of the United States isn't going to solve our problems. The problems are too big."

The multiple afflictions of the times then overwhelmed the Carter administration, furthering adding to the sense of a government that no longer worked.

Then came the political change. Ronald Reagan became president, Fed policy broke the back of inflation, the recession of the early 1980s ended, oil prices declined, and suddenly we didn't hear the structural argument anymore.

Obama himself has been understandably countering the structural argument. In his weekly address this weekend, he said: "while there’s nothing wrong with our country, there is something wrong with our politics.... what’s holding us back [is] the fact that some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than see America win."

I think Obama is still pulling his punches. He never identifies who exactly these people in Congress are. That, to my mind, only reinforces a false equivalence and encourages an all-too-easy "a plague o' both your houses" mentality that refuses to distinguish the responsible from the reckless.

But in essence, I think Obama is correct. The problem isn't institutions, it is people. And he's got most of the founders on his side.

Bill notes as an aside in his post:
I wouldn't be thinking this way were it not for reading I am doing about the Founders and their respective attitudes about the federal government established by the Constitution. It's fascinating to realize that few of them would ever have presupposed that the structure they put in place would not have been re-visited by now.
In this, I suspect he is correct. The Constitution was created in the spirit of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, and as such it was self-consciously designed as an experiment, with no confidence at all that they had gotten everything right.

But I think Bill underestimates how much things have changed within their structure. In a strictly limited sense, the Tea Partiers are not entirely wrong when they assert that the founders would not recognize our government today. The federal government has gained power at the expense of the states. The presidency has gained power at the expense of the Congress. The electorate has changed dramatically.

All of that is true. However, the aspect of our current politics that most of the founders, I believe, would find most alarming (though not surprising), is not that federalism has not been re-visited. It is the lack of what they referred to as "republican virtue." Structures of government may change, they believed, but that quality was essential to successful self-government.

According to Gordon Wood, in his work Empire of Liberty, their study of history had taught the founders that "what made republican governments historically so fragile" was that they required citizens with a "capacity for self-sacrifice and impartiality of judgment." (That, I would argue, is precisely what is lacking among the Tea Partiers today.)

Bill looks at today's problems and argues: "We need to make it impossible for our national leaders, great, venal, or merely mediocre, to abdicate responsibility for governing."

This, I would counter, is something that the founders would have thought was the beyond the capacity of any constitution. They were under no illusions that they had created a system of government that could accomplish that goal. Only a virtuous citizenry could do that.

In the 1780s, James Madison said that for any republican form of government to work, the people must have the "virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom." Otherwise, he said, "no theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure."

In that, I think Madison most certainly got it right. Perhaps the Carleton position that we "should be talking about changing the Constitution to equip the American government to be functional and competent on the world stage in the 21st Century" is worth pursuing. Certainly the founders would not object in principle to that suggestion.

But we should be under no illusions that tinkering with the machinery of government will ultimately save us from ourselves.

[In my next post, I will further explore how, notwithstanding their tri-corner hats, the Tea Partiers actually represent the antithesis of the "republican virtue" the founders thought essential to good government.]

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.

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.]