The “political center” Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan were not.
In the wake of the 2006 elections came a surge of claims that victory had gone to advocates (read: Democrats) of something known as the political “center.” Time magazine even put a helpful diagram of this so-called “center” on its cover. To the left a circle of blue, to the right a circle of red. The co-centric, as they say in math class, was a sliver of purple in the center. That bard of the imagined political center, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, was not alone in cheering a “victory” for the sacred political home that so many journalists of today celebrate with a devotion unseen since Tom Cruise first spied Katie Holmes.
So it’s worth taking a look back on Ronald Reagan’s birthday to both Reagan and that other February-born Republican president, both of whom are lionized today as symbols of “the political center.”
The center in Lincoln’s day was perfectly embodied by the man he succeeded in the White House — Democrat James Buchanan. A career politician from Pennsylvania, Buchanan had served successively as a state legislator, Congressman, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State and Ambassador to Great Britain before winning election in 1856. Buchanan had won the presidency by appealing to what was then the center of American politics, a center that believed in “Union above Section, Party above Faction.” While sympathetic to the idea of a gradual move to end slavery, he was vigorously opposed to abolitionists and their insistence that slavery was a moral blot on the American copybook. It was a political sentiment shared along with a clear majority of Americans. “Touch this question of slavery seriously,” Buchanan warned, “and the Union from that moment is dissolved.”
Support of slavery was the undisputed center of American politics, and had been since the founding of the country. Presidents, senators and congressmen as well as state and local officials by the thousands had not only been elected as supporters of slavery, many had owned slaves themselves. Every Democratic President of the United States from the party’s founder, Jefferson, right straight through to Buchanan was at one time or other the owner of slaves. Indeed, for decades one could not get elected to any office in many parts of the country — much less win the presidency — if the slightest suspicion existed that the candidate in question intended to do something as radical as abolish slavery.
Yet touching the question of slavery seriously — and thus moving the center of American politics — was just what Lincoln was determined to do. In the words of his cousin John Hanks, slavery “had run its iron into” Lincoln from the moment he had first seen it with his own eyes during a flat-boat trip with Hanks down the Mississippi to New Orleans in May of 1831. For years to come, long before entering the White House thirty years after that encounter in New Orleans, Lincoln thought and wrote about slavery and its meaning for an America founded in the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Focusing like a laser on the relationship between law and morality, he was relentless in making the case that, political center or not, popular or not, Americans had a moral obligation to oppose the evil that was slavery.
BUCHANAN, THE VERY EMBODIMENT of the center with a long career famous for his ability to go-along-to-get-along, was appalled by Lincoln’s position in the 1858 debates with Illinois’s Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas. According to his biographer, Buchanan thought the debates, with Lincoln’s focus on slavery and the rights of men, “a tragedy.” He regarded Lincoln’s famous phrase that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” as reckless rhetoric that served only to inflame public opinion.
He was not alone in viewing Lincoln and his followers as extremists well outside the political mainstream. When Lincoln, elected president with a mere 43% of the vote, changed the objective of his administration from simply holding the Union together to ending slavery forever, his “centrist” critics pounced. Infuriated at what they perceived as his radically extremist policies they attacked the President for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and quite publicly moving his support of the Thirteenth Amendment (which abolished slavery) to the top of the administration’s agenda. The criticism of Lincoln-as-extremist was loud and frequent, with one Philadelphia newspaper calling him a ringleader of “fanatical Abolitionism” who must take personal responsibility for starting the Civil War and bringing about the slaughter of thousands.
One hundred and twenty years later it was Reagan’s turn to be painted by his opponents as an out-of-the-mainstream extremist. As with Lincoln, Reagan too had spent decades thinking, writing and speaking about the evils of Communism. From his Hollywood days as president of the Screen Actors Guild on through his years as the spokesman for General Electric, Reagan honed his criticism of Communism and what had evolved as the center of American political thought on the Cold War. In the face of a political center that sought detente with the Soviet Union and valued arms control agreements and constant diplomacy as the penultimate evidence of common sense, Reagan, like Lincoln before him, was fearless.
The political center of the day, and the men and women who championed its politics, repeatedly attacked Reagan as an extremist. Supporters of every single opponent he faced in two races for the California governorship and three (including a last-minute 1968 candidacy at the Republican Convention) for the White House charged Reagan and his followers with being radical extremists outside the center of American politics. Whether it was Democrats like California Governor Pat Brown or President Jimmy Carter, or Republicans like Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the establishment of the political center was ferocious in its efforts to keep that center from being moved an inch from where they believed it vital to be. Their disdain for Reagan personally was particularly palpable, viewing his all-too-obvious belief that the solution to the Cold War was to seek flat-out victory as everything from simplistic to dangerous.
THE RESULTS, OF COURSE, are obvious. It is Lincoln with the monument on the Mall, the eternally towering reputation as the Great Emancipator. Lincoln’s stubborn notion that slavery should not exist in America today is universally viewed as the bedrock of the American political center, its morality and relationship to the Declaration of Independence, natural law and a divine Creator cited endlessly.
So too is victory in the Cold War taken as evidence of the central truths about human freedom and liberty that Reagan preached so endlessly — and for which he was so repeatedly vilified as a living, breathing advocate.
As we reflect this February on the lives of the two American presidents whose careers shifted the political center of their own day, conservatives could do worse then to ponder the lives of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Both men rejected the siren song of “consensus politics” that the political center of the day inevitably chorused. There could be no “consensus” about slavery beyond ending it, nor should there ever have been a “consensus” on the Cold War beyond winning it.
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