Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln" couldn't have come out at a better time. With congressional leaders hunkered down in fiscal-cliff negotiations, the film offers a useful example of politics based on principle.
Lincoln did what was necessary to achieve his goals of saving the union and abolishing slavery, and that included arm-twisting, campaign contributions and doling out patronage jobs to sway wavering representatives.
“I am president of the United States clothed with great power,” Lincoln told his Republican allies in the House as he pushed for approval of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. It was “a measure of such importance,” Lincoln said, that the votes “must be procured.”
More than a few have misunderstood the moral of the story. The Washington Post’s Michael Gershon concluded that a trip to the theater might instill in legislators “greater appreciation for flexibility and compromise.” Another critic claimed the film was about “the virtues of bipartisanship and compromise.”
Bipartisanship maybe, compromise no.
Lincoln showed no desire to compromise in January 1865 when he demanded Congress reconsider the 13th Amendment, which a few months earlier had passed the Senate but failed to win necessary two-thirds approval from House members on a party-line vote.
Some had recommended delaying the vote until more newly elected Republican congressmen could take office in March. Others wanted to know if Confederate peace talks were in the works that might end the Civil War, in which case they hoped to avoid a re-vote altogether.
Lincoln preferred to push the amendment through by securing a few more Democratic votes.
When the amendment finally went to the states for ratification, there was much less hesitation. The required three-fourths approved it easily before the end of the year.
There is a time for compromise, as the framers of the Constitution decided in 1787 when they preserved slavery in order to keep the constitutional convention from falling apart. But by definition, compromise defers to another day a solution based on principle, a determination about what’s best for the country over time.
The parallel to the fiscal-cliff dilemma, though of less moral consequence, is impossible to miss. Failure to act by year’s end will trigger $600 billion in automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that could push the economy into recession. The president and Congress cannot kick the issue to the next generation. Here’s what they can learn from Lincoln:
Be clear about the principle you’re fighting for. Continued deficit spending by government will so damage the country’s health that an immediate and bipartisan solution is essential – so essential that votes “must be procured.” The President has failed to define the principle for the American public. He has made the fiscal cliff into a dispute over tax rates rather than the country’s very survival.
Summon the courage to do the unpopular. Politicians cannot live in fear of the AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons) or the next election. When this year's kindergartners enter college, spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the debt will consume all tax revenue. This is not sustainable. If politicians explain to the American people why entitlement programs must be cut or the retirement age must be raised, public opinion should follow.
In the same vein, many Republicans in Congress signed a Taxpayer Protection Pledge when they ran for office, promising never to vote for higher taxes. If a bipartisan deal is reached that raises some taxes while still advancing the bigger principle -- reduced government spending -- sound public policy should trump campaign promises.
As journalist Frank Miele wrote recently in response to the Lincoln film, “Principles can be compromised for 10 years or a hundred years, but eventually they rise up again with a vengeance.” So it was with slavery, and so it is with government spending.
Raising the debt ceiling again is an example of compromise. Solving the debt crisis permanently would be politics of principle. Absent the latter, the next generation will be the one to deal with the consequences of catastrophic debt.