A Republican president wins an incredibly divisive election, despite failing to win a majority of the popular vote. He enters office with a serious legitimacy problem. He is constantly criticized for his perceived lack of intelligence, with major New York newspapers commenting on his “small intellect” and his political opponents harping on his poor grammar skills. It is suggested by many that he secured the Republican nomination by using underhanded political tactics to defeat abler and better men.
This Republican, almost immediately upon assuming the presidency, faces a severe crisis that shapes his term of office. The crisis is broadly recognized as a critical threat to U.S. national security, and the citizens of the United States rally behind the president in a patriotic wave of support. The president takes unprecedented steps to curtail civil liberties, claiming that these steps are an absolutely vital response to the crisis. He takes these steps without proper authorization from Congress, and is rebuked by the Supreme Court, but continues to abridge civil liberties throughout his presidency.
The president wages a war in response to the crisis. At first the war is popular, but public opinion sours when a string of generals and military leaders display a disgraceful incompetence that humiliates the United States military. For his inability to prosecute the military operations effectively, the president himself is blamed, and his administration comes under fire from Democrats in Congress for its bumbling mismanagement. Democrats eventually grow bolder, calling for an immediate end to the war and the return of soldiers to their homes. The president is blasted for his callous willingness to send troops to their deaths when he himself has never served in uniform. And finally, above all, he is heavily criticized for pursuing extremist policies far outside of the political center of the country, and for refusing to compromise with his opponents or moderate his position.
This description is, of course, of President Abraham Lincoln, but also seems to apply remarkably well to another, modern Republican president — which is, of course, my point.
Let me hasten to add that if Doris Kearns Goodwin — the historian whose excellent book on Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,” triggered this heretical train of thought — was reading this column, at about this point she would start shrieking, and possibly throwing things at me. Of course, the differences between Lincoln and George W. Bush are as vast as their similarities. (For instance, Lincoln made a point of surrounding himself, throughout his presidency, with cabinet secretaries and other advisers who violently disagreed with him). And God knows — I want to be very clear on this point — I don’t want to suggest that George W. Bush is somehow the second coming of Lincoln, a great statesman in disguise whom we Yale students are just too elitist to recognize as such.
But can we in all honesty truly be sure that in 1860, all of us would have been on Lincoln’s side? As I read about Lincoln, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those protesting the war in Iraq would also, for pretty much the same reasons, have protested the Civil War. You can almost see the signs now. “No blood for slaves.” “When Buchanan tried, nobody died.”
Suppose we take as a given that the Bush administration’s policies have been catastrophic. Fine. But without the benefit of hindsight, how are we to distinguish the good wars from the bad wars? Given enough time, any U.S. military action undertaken by any president will always, inevitably, produce an anti-war movement. It is our job, as voters and citizens, to discern intelligently which ones are justified.
Here is my plea to the anti-war movement in this country today. At the risk of being blunt: Stop making arguments that are stupid. The fact that the commander in chief has never “served a day in his life in uniform” might be fun to say, but it has no relevance to the debate. And the incompetence with which the Iraq occupation has been handled — while in and of itself an important issue — is not a valid argument against the war itself, either. Neither are emotional appeals referencing the deaths of thousands of American soldiers. All of these are arguments that any opponent of any war could make in any time, at any place. They would have been equally valid against Lincoln. They are intellectually lazy and they don’t get to the question of why this war is wrong.
The Civil War was worth fighting. Democrats need to explain why this one no longer is. So long as they craft their argument as an intelligent appeal to reason, they will retain the support of the American people. As soon as they veer off into rhetoric that eschews thoughtful argumentation in favor of a blanket condemnation of war, they will lose their hold on Congress and the support of the American people.
Roger Low is a senior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.