Today, Feb. 27, is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's speech at Cooper Union in New York City, which the eminent Lincoln historian Harold Holzer has called the speech that made him president. Why was his address that night so successful, and what does it mean for us today, including for President Obama? The answer is, a lot.
On Feb. 27, 1860, the nation was in mortal crisis. A crucial issue of the day was whether the Federal government could forbid the extension of slavery into U.S. territories. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois argued that only the territories themselves could decide this question, a position he called "popular sovereignty." He further argued, "Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now."
At Cooper Union, Lincoln, after months of preparation, attacked Douglas's position with lawyer-like precision. In meticulous detail, he demonstrated that 23 of the 39 Founding Fathers had supported federal regulation of slavery in territories, either by voting for legislation that did this, signing such legislation into law, or not objecting to the passage of such laws. Lincoln repeated Douglas's misrepresentation relentlessly, until Douglas's argument was wholly untenable and actually seemed ludicrous. Lincoln stated his party's position on slavery: that it was wrong and should not be extended into territories, but also that it should not be interfered with where it already existed. He called Democratic charges that the Republicans supported John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia "malicious slander." Finally, he implored Southerners to discuss their differences with him and to listen to the principles for which he stood.
The audience, initially unsure of what to make of Lincoln, was won over and Lincoln became nationally known overnight. That summer, he received the Republican nomination for President on the third convention ballot.
The crises we face today might be less grave than those of 1860, but they are very serious. President Obama, who has expressed admiration for Lincoln, has said he wants to change the culture of Washington and improve our political discourse and way of functioning. He could best accomplish these lofty goals by emulating Lincoln at Cooper Union -- that is, by forcefully articulating where he'd like the country to go, then marshaling facts and painstaking logic to support his goals and proposals and addressing head-on -- and, where appropriate, ridiculing -- the arguments of his opposition.
Lincoln's purported heirs in the Republican party are rife for such Lincoln-like treatment. They have repeatedly fought Obama on policies they supported when George W. Bush was president. For example, Republicans (including Senator John McCain and former Governor Sarah Palin) supported the bank bailouts proposed by Bush during the 2008 election campaign, but now criticize them as "big government." On presidential appointments, Republicans wanted to end the senatorial filibuster when Democrats held up some of Bush's judicial nominations, but now use the filibuster with unprecedented frequency to block anything Obama proposes and anyone he nominates. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama criticized senators who blocked Bush's appointments, but recently attempted to hold up more than 70 Obama appointments until certain federal projects in Alabama were funded by Congress. These and other political abuses need to be exposed and highlighted with Lincoln-like vigor and derision, for the public to see and to judge.
The same is true with health care reform. Republican assertions that the proposed legislation would allow federal "death panels" are, of course, baseless. Actually, federal support for end-of-life planning was added to the bill as a compassionate measure by Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who was surprised by the storm that ensued. Similarly, Republicans decry the expense of Democratic health reforms, when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that at least one version of such reforms would actually save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. The impact of these duplicitous Republican tactics has been exacerbated by the vacuum of facts and leadership that Obama has passively allowed to persist. The recent "health care summit" did not change this dynamic, but it did illustrate vividly the opportunities Obama could exploit to demonstrate the superiority of his proposals over those of the Republicans.
When he is not surrounded by obfuscating Republicans, Obama has a unique ability to emulate the plain eloquence and humor of Lincoln. With his skills, he could surely refute Republican rhetoric as courageously, intelligently, systematically, and charmingly as Lincoln did Douglas's. Why has he not done so? Perhaps he fears polarizing the voters, or Congress, even more than they already are. But with the facts on his side, Lincoln was not afraid to take on his opponents squarely. He had the faith, as he concluded his speech, that "right makes might." Or perhaps Obama fears that in our current political climate, pitching speeches to Lincoln's level of rigor and sophistication is doomed to fail.
On the morning of February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln's presidential prospects seemed no better. Then he spoke at Cooper Union.