Lincoln's lesson for McCain

A perpetual problem in politics is the dispute between statesmen and party strategists. The former wish to lead public opinion in the direction of wise policies and the latter support policies which win elections. There is a tension between these two positions but it is surmountable only on terms of statesmanship. Supporters of John McCain, such as Jonah Goldberg, editor of National Review Online, have counseled him against emphasizing his stand on the war on Iraq, not because the Arizona Senator was wrong but because he was right. That is, McCain favored the strategy that President Bush called the "surge," which has brought greater peace and stability to the keystone nation of the Middle East than at any time since the war began. McCain is proud of this.

He should be. But it is also wise for him to emphasize that peace comes through strength in Iraq, not only for the sake of Iraq, but for the sake of our national interests elsewhere. The lessons of Iraq are the lessons of world leadership in the 21st century.

So how could it be wrong to stress the importance of victory in Iraq? Because, Goldberg argues, the public is tired of the war and is therefore willing to give Sen. Barack Obama a shot at the presidency, the same man who has long advocated a precipitous withdrawal. After all, if we’re pulling out anyway, what can be the danger in electing a man who merely wants to finish the job?

More than this, Goldberg contends, the number one issue is not the Iraq war but the economy and energy development, left in a sad state by years of Democratic denial of our national oil drilling rights. (I predict that energy issues will eclipse concern over the housing market.)

But these main issues are not only fleeting in their resonance with the voters, they are less than overwhelming. Rarely do they secure anything more than a plurality of public assent. The same folks who grumble because politicians can be elected with less than a majority profess to be deeply concerned about narrow pluralities measuring what are the "big issues."

McCain has to make the case for the surge, not only because it illustrates that he has the judgment necessary to bring American policy in Iraq to full fruition, but because our enemies will bring us more Iraqs in the future. The way to avoid this specter is to put both state and nonstate terrorists on notice that their aggressive tactics will not be tolerated.

I commend the example of Abraham Lincoln when he ran for the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 1858 against the powerful Democratic incumbent, Stephen Douglas. Douglas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, had staked his campaign for the presidency on his authorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and its doctrine of "popular sovereignty."

From the beginning of the Republic, and especially since our victory in the Mexican war, there had been pressure to expand the territory open to chattel slavery. The Missouri Compromise (1819) kept slavery out of most of the Louisiana Territory, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act explicitly repealed the ban and threw open all of the territory to slavery.

Douglas insisted that the issue had to be decided by the will of the settlers in the territory, prior to statehood, in a free and fair election. But slaveholders and their allies from neighboring Missouri brought violence and intimidation into "bleeding Kansas" and attempted to win congressional acceptance of a slave constitution produced by a corrupt constitutional convention and a rigged popular vote in 1857.

The newly formed anti-slavery Republican Party was outraged, and found a powerful ally in Sen. Douglas, who actually broke with the pro-slavery Buchanan Administration over the issue. Douglas lost all his federal patronage but felt confident of reelection in 1858 because he expected Republicans to appreciate his opposition to the corrupt Kansas constitution.

But Lincoln took Sen. Douglas on, warning Republicans that, despite Douglas’s opposition to the admission of Kansas, his legislation had opened the territory to slavery. Lincoln reminded them that he had opposed Douglas when he unleashed this monster. "Better a living dog than a dead lion," he said, comparing his humble standing to his opponent’s mighty stature.

Lincoln lost that election, but two years later, in 1860, he bested Douglas and two other candidates for the Presidency. Thus was the nation benefitted by having a chief executive and commander-in-chief who made the right decisions when eleven states launched a rebellion to perpetuate slavery.

Sen. McCain is a living lion with more than an even chance of defeating the Democratic Party’s champion of appeasement. Reminding the voters of what steely judgment it takes to dispatch our enemies is the way to win elections, not lose them. McCain is on the right track.