As I noted a couple of weeks ago on my movie blog, Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln, written by star playwright Tony Kushner, is virtually a cinematic illustration of historian Sean Wilentz's critique of rhetorically-based politics and the "mugwump" mentality, which Wilentz identifies with fans of President Obama and critics of the Clintons, that recoils at any means of legislative persuasion other than intellectual argument. As many moviegoers now know, the Spielberg film presents a Lincoln prepared to cut venal deals with lame-duck legislators from the opposite party in order to get the 13th Amendment approved by the House of Representatives. That approach may strike some observers, then and now, as impure, but it sped the end of slavery in America. Lincoln argues that it's less important to persuade people that you are right than to get their votes, since your goal as a political leader is not to make everyone agree with you, but to advance your agenda. Inevitably, 21st century pundits and opinionators look to the popular history play for keys to the country's current political impasse. As Joe Klein writes in the current issue of Time, the movie "resurrects the noble greasiness of politics at a perfect moment [when] we need some inspired horse-trading in Washington right now."
Is horse trading possible when at least one major party seems not to think of its principles as horses to be traded? Republicans and Democrats have embarked on a chicken run, the President's party warning that the nation will go over the "fiscal cliff" unless taxes are increased on the richest 2% of the population, the GOP protesting that only austerity on the part of government (and many of its beneficiaries) will make possible authentic economic growth, and that we may as well go over the cliff if Democrats won't cut entitlements. While some Republicans vocally resent their bondage to no-tax pledges, enough of them to retain control of the House presumably stand firm on those pledges, regarding higher taxes as an unnecessary if not absolute evil. What can you offer ideologues for betraying their ideology? Writers like Wilentz or Klein might question whether the typical Republican congressman is more rigidly ideological than the northern Democrats of Lincoln's time. Many opposed the abolition of slavery in their hearts because they were racists, but were swayed, in Spielberg's account, by personal interest, often in the form of government jobs offered to lame ducks defeated in the late elections. There aren't many lame ducks in 2012; there definitely aren't enough. But are sitting Republican legislators venal enough to be turned, and if so, by what? Klein is vague on the neo-Lincolnesque approach to (or would that be retreat from) the fiscal cliff, but his column includes a paragraph of praise for recently much-deplored congressional earmarks, which he describes as "those tiny emoluments doled out to individual members of Congress for
works, good and not so good, in their districts, often in return for
their votes on larger issues." In Klein's film-informed opinion, "Earmarks are a useful lubricant for the great gears of legislation." In a similar vein, he writes that "the only way great deeds are done" in a democracy, much of the time, is "via the low arts of patronage and patronization." But for as long as that's been true, a critical tradition has condemned the practice as bribery, worse from the perspective of fiscal conservatism when the bribes are funded by taxpayers. At the same time, idealists shouldn't have to apologize for wishing that debates could be settled in more reasonable fashion, though Lincoln's point about not needing to convert one's antagonists is also an important one for liberal representative democracy. It means that we'll have to get used to complaints that Republicans were "bribed" in some way should the President get his way in the current debate. The question remains whether enough Republicans can be bribed, if bribery (or "horse trading") is the answer. Democrats and their sympathizers may find themselves in the odd position of hoping that Republicans are more corrupt, though in a different way, than they already believe the GOP to be.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that Lincoln's new standing as a great compromiser, or a great inducer of compromises, would surprise many of his admirers across American history. It was his refusal to compromise on allowing slavery to expand into the territories conquered from Mexico that made his election as President intolerable to the seceding states. In the crucial months before his election and inauguration, Lincoln would not cross certain lines of principle to make himself acceptable to the fire-eaters of the slaveholding states. Should he have compromised -- should the South have offered sufficient incentives to compromise, whatever those may have been -- to save hundreds of thousands of lives from war? That debate continues today, and whether every political question can be reconciled by compromise or horse-trading remains an open one. It's reasonable to believe the fiscal-cliff debate can be resolved that way, but whether Congress has enough reasonable (or "corruptible") members to resolve the debate is the real question of the moment.