In a refreshing and somewhat unusual statement following President Obama’s State of the Union address, Missouri Congressman Lacy Clay said, “Tonight’s speech demonstrated President Obama’s positive vision, and reminded me of Presidents Bill Clinton and Franklin Roosevelt.” In recent years, Democrats have been hesitant to reference Franklin Roosevelt, the icon of the social and economic safety nets that are fundamental to protecting the needs of the least fortunate among us. Congressman Clay was willing to do it.
Perhaps more remarkable and encouraging was Clay’s citing of President Bill Clinton. Nearly twelve years removed from his last day in office, more and more people are becoming aware of the many accomplishments that he had during his eight years as president. It didn’t hurt that he was followed by George W. Bush who lowered the bar for all. Still, it takes quite a bit of commitment and courage to honor him. After all, he is the only president other than Andrew Johnson in 1867 who was impeached. In many ways his name has been associated with scandal rather than social and economic progress. But Congressman Clay and others have been able to see his many accomplishments and to give them their appropriate respect.
It has been easier for Republicans. They seem to have no trouble embellishing their so-called heroes with accolades, most particularly Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln. The big difference between what the Democrats and the Republicans do is that the Democrats actually believe much of what they say about their historic heroes. The Republicans tend to luxuriate in the names Lincoln and Reagan while in many regards, particularly with Lincoln, they distort the truth.
Abraham Lincoln was known as the Great Emancipator. While there is indeed some question as to his timing with regard to liberating the slaves, he stood foursquare behind the idea of, first, ending the expansion of slavery and, second, negotiating a way for southerners to free their slaves. He was even willing to make a financial settlement with them (technically called compensated emancipation). Very few in the Confederacy had interest in negotiating with the Northerners who they saw as imperialistic and arrogant. They preferred to take out their rifles to fight a war that, while fruitless, was characterized by remarkable bravery on both sides, with each side having its fair share of victories.
The idea of today’s Republicans worshiping Lincoln is in many ways ludicrous. Think of what Lincoln favored that are presently anathema to Republicans:
1. He believed in the supremacy of the federal government over the states. Had he not, he would not have reluctantly supported the War Between the States.
2. He favored a robust program of capital investment in the country’s infrastructure. He played a key role in planning and implementing the transcontinental railroad. Today’s Republicans support virtually no infrastructure development, unless it is a bridge to nowhere.
3. Lincoln initiated the program of Land Grant Colleges. He believed in broadening higher education opportunities to as many interested and deserving students as possible. He saw this as a government responsibility. In 1862, he signed a law offering federal lands to each state to help establish public colleges for working-class Americans. This stands in contrast to many of today’s Republicans who are quick to cut funding to higher education (as well as all other levels of schooling). Because part of today’s Republicans’ mantra is economic privatization, their priorities in education are private schools include so-called for-profit college, as well as vouchers to provide economic independence for many elementary and secondary schools.
Today’s Republicans also tend to think that Ronald Reagan walked on water. Yes, he talked a good game about opposing tax increases, but when federal deficits occurred or were on the horizon as has been the case over the past ten years, he was quick to support taxes (or revenue enhancers) in order prevent the deficit from getting out of hand.
And while Reagan was partisan; he was not acrimonious. He knew that real cooperation (a word that currently is held in favor with Republicans) meant compromise (a word held in disdain by Republicans). One reason why the federal government was productive at times during the Reagan Administration is because he developed a very affable working relationship with Tip O’Neill, the speaker of the House. They frequently disagreed during the day, but in the evenings they socialized and frequently worked out differences. Even though President Barack Obama tries to engage Republicans in collaboration, the GOP seems to offer only idle words with few actual deeds.
So along with Republic myths about topics such as job creation through reducing taxes for the wealthy, they re-write history with their favorite heroes. Democrats don’t always tell the truth, but they tend to not tell bald-faced lies. It would strengthen our two-party system if Republicans were a little more comfortable with the truth.