12/03/2012 03:59 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

Lessons From Lincoln


All of Washington is abuzz about the new Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, that focuses on the 16th President's carefully modulated strategy for prying the 13th Amendment freeing the slaves out of a reluctant House of Representatives.

Lincoln is an important story well told. Day-Lewis' impersonation of Lincoln is spot on, right down to the great man's high-pitched voice, lumbering gait and profound melancholy. To watch that film is to walk into the White House in January 1865 and make eye contact with one of the great figures of human history. You can almost see the weight on his shoulders and feel his anguish at the mournful tide of death engulfing his world.

But the pols and pundits in Washington are flocking to Lincoln for another salutary purpose -- to see a vivid example of how our political system is supposed to work. This film is not about Lincoln the demigod spouting inspired rhetoric; it is about Lincoln the politician cutting backroom deals with shady characters in pursuit of a noble goal.

In the movie, Lincoln makes a case that I had frankly never considered -- that neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the triumph of arms guaranteed freedom for four million slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation was nothing more than an executive order of questionable legality that could have been overturned by another president, and it probably would have been overturned by Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson. Likewise, the triumph of the Union armies that by then was clearly inevitable did not of itself promise an end to slavery.

Lincoln understood that he could not take it for granted that slavery would just go away when the year ended. He knew it could not be destroyed with an executive order or even a law enacted by Congress. The only way to drive a stake through that monster's heart was with an amendment to the Constitution. The Senate had already approved the measure and Lincoln knew there were enough states ready and willing to ratify it. But he had to get it through the House.

All the House Republicans were with Lincoln, but they did not comprise the needed two-thirds majority for a Constitutional amendment. He needed Democratic votes, but the Democratic leadership was adamantly opposed to emancipation. So Lincoln zeroed in on two dozen or so Democrats who, having lost their reelection bids, were lame ducks. He figured they would be looking for work and he, as president, controlled many jobs. Offering government jobs in exchange for votes for the amendment was unseemly to put it mildly, but that is the point of the movie. To get things done in Washington, even very worthwhile things, you have to cut deals and make compromises.

That is what Washington needs today -- less ideology and more practical no-nonsense deal making. I highly recommend this movie both for its entertainment value, its contribution to history and as a primer for members of Congress and the administration now locked in negotiations over a budget deal. Go watch the master at work.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. You may quote from this with attribution. Let me know if you would like to speak with me.