If word association and body language were the principal criteria to judge the current crop of Democratic candidates, then Barack Obama would win the most vacuous campaign slogan award—I want change!—and Hillary Clinton would strut away with the Oprah Winfrey tears of narcissism trophy. Fortunately, recognition for hair care achievements seems to have thinned out in popular consciousness, or John Edwards would be the front-runner with curly waves to spare.
None of this is to say that these politicians don’t have real positions on issues, but rather that there’s scarcely a follicle’s difference among them. In fact, their legislative records typically show that the views of the three of them cling to the same left-wing template that hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. And none can boast of executive experience or a record of leadership in anything.
One could argue that at least Republicans have fielded a spate of contenders who know what it’s like to be in charge of something, to administer a large organization. Alas, the front-runner here—who at the time of this writing is John McCain—suffers from the same blank spot in the resume that plagues the Democrats, regardless of his incomparable war record. Further, McCain’s co-sponsorship of one of the most dangerous threats to free speech since the Alien and Sedition Acts—the Campaign Finance Reform Act—should put voters in both parties on edge. And if it’s a choice between “to be” or Mike Huckabee, cute dimple and all, many secularist Republicans would choose the former, whoever that turns out to be. Most likely that would be Mitt Romney, regardless of his Mormonism, especially given Rudy Giuliani’s strategy of waiting to compete until he has a reasonable chance to win. Though Giuliani is solid in many ways, his electability may decline in direct proportion to American success in Iraq.
Candidates from both parties hearken to past heroes—JFK for the Democrats, Ronald Reagan for the Republicans, and on occasion, FDR for both. They should go back farther in time, to the 19th century, specifically to 1838, where a remarkable young man gave the first of what was to become a series of insightful, prescient and genuinely profound speeches: Abraham Lincoln was all of 28 years old when he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Ill., on the topic, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”
His speech was occasioned by a series of recent lynchings that had generated great fear about citizens’ commitment to the laws of the land. Evil consequences befall a nation whose citizens cavalierly ignore the rule of law, Lincoln warned; indeed, “let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.” He went on to conclude that “reverence for the law” should become the “political religion” of the country; all Americans should “sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.”
Lincoln’s message is as relevant now as it was then; perhaps more so, considering how some American cities have defied national law by offering “sanctuary” to criminal aliens, or how many institutions, such as universities, have shown contempt for the principle of equality before the law. The principal difference between then and now is that in the 1830s Lincoln and others were concerned about mob lawlessness. Today the major threat comes from many insulated elites who, like the confederates of the 1860s, despise the national union and strive to protect their special privileges, their peculiar institutions.
Lincoln’s most brilliant point focused on the dangers from those who strive to transcend the constitutional order to satisfy their political ambitions, which can be harnessed to pursue evil causes as well as laudable ones. The real challenge to the republic thus rests in its capacity to cope with such a person: “Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.” As Lincoln knew, the country contains many such individuals. Observations like these, along with the rest of his political career, set Lincoln above the political hacks he had to deal with for the remainder of his life.
All of which means that today’s campaigners should forget Reagan and Kennedy, because both presidents, regardless of their political skills and attractiveness, in the final analysis were men of their times who successfully dealt with challenges unique to their terms in office. Lincoln, on the other hand, transcended his time and spoke for the ages. The Lincoln Standards are based on insights into the timeless principles that explain human nature and politics. To these may be added, as his life demonstrated, the courage and judgment to act on such insights. The question for this year and in years to come is whether any candidate can measure up to the standards he set.