If Lincoln Were Alive, He'd Be a Democrat

Roundup: Media's Take

Greg Bailey, a St. Louis attorney, is a correspondent for the Economist:

As Abraham Lincoln's birthday approaches Republicans around the nation gather together in country clubs and halls for their annual Lincoln Day banquets. Dressed in their finest, the loan officer of the branch bank sips his gimlet while the cross-wearing locksmith intones the virtues of home schooling to the party faithful gathered around the table. The rank and file eye each other warily occasionally straining a smile during the dinner. After desert a speaker arises who, after repeating some old Clinton jokes he remembers and praising the candidates strung along the front table as the only hope for America, will remind the assembly that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president and proclaim that the party of Lincoln is marching on to victory with his spirit guiding their footsteps.

Fortified with those words, the party stalwarts depart, carrying away the souvenir crepe paper centerpieces to their foreign made cars. But behind the facade of the Republican party's claim to be the party of Lincoln is the unpleasant but undeniable truth that if Abraham Lincoln were alive today he would be a Democrat. History and his story along with his views on government strongly support it.

Abraham Lincoln was not in fact much of a Republican when he was alive. Lincoln was for most of his life a proud member of the Whig party whose platform of harnessing the power of the government to invest in the public good is not greatly different in substance than of modern mainstream Democrats. As the Whig party fell apart in the 185Os over the issue of the expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska Lincoln tried to hold the party together. In 1854 he ran for the state legislature identifying himself as an Anti-Nebraska Whig. During the campaign a group of Republicans named Lincoln to the central committee of the new party without his consent or knowledge."I have been perplexed some to understand why my name was placed on that committee," he wrote.

In 1856 Lincoln, as recorded in his writings, reluctantly joined the Republican presidential campaign of John Fremont. In the campaign Lincoln preferred to be identified as a Fremont man or simply Anti-Nebraska, still finding the Republican label distasteful. The party was tainted in Lincoln's view by the alliance with the former members of the bigoted American or"Know-Nothing" party whose anti-immigrant rhetoric foreshadowed the far right faction of present day Republicans.

Lincoln ran on a Republican ticket only one time: his 186O election as President. In his famous but unsuccessful campaign for the Senate against Stephen Douglas in 1858 Lincoln technically did not run as a Republican, although he was widely known as their candidate. At that time neither he nor Douglas appeared on the voters' ballots under the old system of indirect selection of Senators by state legislators. Lincoln's last campaign, the re-election in 1864, was under the banner of the Union Party bringing together pro-Union Democrats including vice president Andrew Johnson along with Republicans.

Although the names have remained the same the parties have changed their principles and positions, in many ways flipping to the same degree that regions have flipped their party strengths in the last 150 years. Lincoln's reticence about the Republican party of his day would be more than matched by the sheer rejection the modern GOP would have for a Lincoln living in these times. Lincoln was a deeply devout and spiritual man but was not a churchgoer. On that basis alone the Christian Coalition, which exercises a disproportional power within the Republican party, would effectively veto his chances for public office, distributing fliers in church parking lots denouncing him on the Sunday before the election, much as what happened to John McCain. And what over blown scandal could Ken Starr have made out of Ann Rutledge?

A reincarnated Lincoln would relive part of his past life listening to the states' rights arguments contemporary Republican use against any proposal to help working families. The man who created the Department of Agriculture would recoil at the anti-government diatribes of House Republicans. The president who levied an income tax on the wealthy would have be shocked at George W. Bush's disproportionate tax cut to the wealthiest one percent. The chief executive who believed in practical action to regulate the marketplace such as standardizing railroad gauges across the country would face a barrage of paranoia about big government from the right wing think tanks and media. But above all the president who did everything he could to avoid a war would not have sent Americans into battle on false or faulty pretenses based on slanted intelligence.

Everything Lincoln stood for, if stripped of its nineteenth century labels, places him within the modern day Democratic Party. The man who in 1858 spoke of the"eternal struggle" between right and wrong, the"two principles that have stood face to face since the beginning of time...The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings," would not be a Republican today. He made his choice long ago. It would not have been for a party that has tarnished and misused his name, and could more accurately call itself the party of Richard Nixon or Trent Lott or Dick Army or Tom Delay or Rush Limbaugh, but not Abraham Lincoln.

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