Yes, Abraham Lincoln — born Feb. 12, 1809 — was our first Republican president, and, yes, the GOP proudly calls itself the party of Lincoln. But could Lincoln win his party’s nomination in 2012? Consider his stance on some of the hot-button issues in the Republican primary race.
While Republican candidates today win kudos for signing Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, it is unlikely that Lincoln would sign on, since he, in effect, invented income tax. That is to say, he was the first American president to sign federal income tax into law. And not only that, but it was a progressive income tax, with the wealthiest Americans paying a higher rate. He made no distinctions between earned income and capital gains — money made was money earned — and Lincoln’s administration needed its cut to pull the nation back from the brink of collapse. Strike One against Honest Abe.
Strike Two: He didn’t advertise his faith. The debate over Lincoln’s religious beliefs is a heated one. But there is good evidence that he questioned Christian orthodoxy, perhaps not so surprising at a time when biblical verses were routinely used in defense of slavery, an institution he found morally repugnant. While it is true that Lincoln frequently evoked the Divine in his speeches, he never took up membership in a church, and certainly never spoke publicly about his personal relationship with Christ.
Sad to say, Lincoln’s appearance would be another handicap. When a political rival once accused him of being two-faced, Lincoln reportedly replied, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” Gaunt and gangly, with suits that never quite seemed to fit, Lincoln would be hard-pressed competing for camera time with his well-coifed, media-savvy competitors.
Nor would his image be improved by his tendency toward moderate positions and long and complex arguments. Of course, today the most beloved of Lincoln’s speeches is his famously brief and achingly beautiful Gettysburg Address. But Lincoln rose to national prominence on the strength of his nuanced explorations of the most pressing issues. His pivotal Cooper Union address ran to one-and-a-half hours, his 1854 Peoria speech topped three hours. A far cry from the quick potshots and zingers of today’s debates. Strike Three for the Great Emancipator.
Lincoln’s record would serve him well among some segments of the electorate. He was critical of interventionist foreign wars, he curtailed civil liberties in the name of national security, and he was a longtime supporter of a proposal to fund the out-migration of blacks to colonies in Africa and elsewhere. No doubt, such policies would win support today among isolationists, defenders of Gitmo and advocates of sending President Barack Obama “back to Kenya.”
Could Abraham Lincoln win the 2012 GOP nomination? As commentators are fond of observing in this mercurial primary race, anything is possible. Perhaps the more important question, however, is whether Lincoln would want the nomination.
Jackie Hogan is the author of “Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America.”