The Danger of Analogizing About Politics and Compromise from “Lincoln”
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For those of you who haven’t seen it, Lincoln covers the critical period near the end of the 16th President’s tenure, when he sought passage of the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery in the United States, during a lame duck session of the House (it had already passed the Senate). It details the often messy process of bargaining and purchasing Democratic votes to pass the amendment (Republicans had the majority, but needed a 2/3 vote to pass a Constitutional amendment) while holding Republican votes firm.
Pundits like Al Hunt have analogized this to a larger commentary on compromise and bipartisanship and the art of the possible, to an often laughable degree.
In 1865, the issue was getting the votes to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery. Today’s fiscal negotiations seem trivial by comparison. Yet achieving success requires the same ingredients: bargaining, bartering, bluffing and cutting a few dubious deals.
This is what Americans too often forget about Washington: Our representatives are hired by the voters not to be priests or philosophers, but to be politicians [...]
Mainly it’s about political leadership. To persuade some, Lincoln appeals to their nobler instincts about the evils of racial hatred. With others, he does what’s necessary. With the outcome in the balance, a trio of fixers brought in to help is told: “You will procure me the votes.”
Yes, the story considers the process, the unseemly process, to get to the noble goal of passing the abolition of slavery. But there’s a huge difference between that and the compromises pursued on policy on something like the fiscal slope or the Affordable Care Act to get to a resolution there.
First of all, as Greg Sargent alludes to, the difference here was that Lincoln refused to compromise on the POLICY of abolishing slavery through the Constitution, something he came to late but settled on before ending the war. In fact there is no actual compromise within the TEXT of the 13th Amendment. The goal remains precisely as noble as before. Thaddeus Stevens, the famed abolitionist member of the House, made a speech during the debate where he soft-pedaled racial equality in favor of an emphasis on equality under the law. That’s the closest thing to a backpedal as a means to pass the amendment, and it has precisely no effect on the substantive policy.
The process included offering patronage jobs to lame-duck House members and arm-twisting and appealing to the better natures of others. But nobody asked for the Stupak Amendment of the anti-slavery debate, something that would have kept slavery open on a particular set of grounds. Nobody asked for one side to give up slavery in exchange for the other side to give up the 19th-century version of tax increases or cuts to social insurance programs. Lincoln did NOT compromise on that principle, nor did his strange-bedfellow abolitionist colleagues.
In addition, the entire point of Lincoln having to get the 13th Amendment done in the lame duck is a bit incomplete:
Eric Foner whose book “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” won the Pulitzer Prize for History, says the film’s narrow focus exaggerates the president’s role in ending slavery.
“The emancipation of the slaves is a long, complicated, historical process. It’s not the work of one man, no matter how great he was,” Foner said. ”It was not Lincoln who originated the 13th Amendment, it was the Abolitionist movement. It’s only in the middle of 1864 that Lincoln changes his mind and decides he’s in favor of this amendment.” [...]
“It’s not a question of being wrong, it’s just inadequate,” Foner said. “It gives you the impression that the ratification of the 13th Amendment ends slavery — and that’s wrong. Slavery is already dying at that moment.”
In fact, he says if the 13th Amendment had not passed in January 1865, Lincoln had pledged to call Congress into special session in March.
“And there, the Republicans had a two-thirds majority and would ratify in a minute,” Foner said. “It’s not this giant crisis in the way that the film’s portraying it.”
The film addresses this, and basically implies that the public would not support abolition after the war’s end. But this is all the more reason that you shouldn’t bootstrap a fictional film to the current political debate, especially if you’re using it to push a self-reinforcing idea that Congress should compromise on a grand bargain.