Last week I attended Civil War night at my son's middle school. (It's like a science fair, only all the exhibits illustrate some facet of the Civil War.) While examining a display on the election of 1864, I had an epiphany: Mitch McConnell is the anti-Lincoln. He has presided over the demise of the "party of Lincoln" in part because his behavior is so non-Lincoln-esqe.
Here is the relevant historical background: In the summer of 1864, Lincoln's prospects for re-election were not looking so great. It was at this point that Lincoln wrote what is now referred to as the "blind memorandum."
Lincoln wrote the following, folded the memo in half and then asked his cabinet to sign without reading the contents:
"This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards. – A. Lincoln."
In other words, Lincoln's chief concern was for the future of the Union. The election of 1864 was bigger than him or his party. If he were to lose, he felt it his duty (and that of his cabinet members) to work for the success of the administration that succeeded him.
Does that sound familiar? No, it does not.
We know how Mitch McConnell responded in broadly similar (if less dire) circumstances: He vowed to make Barack Obama a one-term president. He was essentially wishing ill on the country to advance the narrow interests of his own party.
Now we have the standoff over President Obama's Supreme Court nomination, where once again Sen. McConnell has put party before country. His interpretation of the Constitution feels pathetically self-serving. At a minimum, history will judge McConnell guilty of extending and deepening the partisan divide that is paralyzing the federal government.
More broadly, we should not let McConnell off the hook for presiding over the intellectual disintegration of the Republican Party. Who has been atop the "party of Lincoln" for the past decade? And how has that worked out?
To be fair, Harry Reid is no different. He is perfectly capable of acting small when the nation needs grand. I have zero doubt that Sen. Reid would refuse to hold hearings on a Republican Supreme Court nominee under similar circumstances. Let's stipulate that we will not have to make space atop Mount Rushmore for Harry Reid any time soon.
But that does not let Mitch McConnell off the hook. He is the one who has gone to great effort to foil the Obama presidency at a time when we as a nation need it to succeed. Besides, "he did it first" is a poor excuse, in politics or on an elementary school playground. I'm not aware of Lincoln ever acting in some narrow, petty way and then exclaiming, "James Buchanan did the same thing!"
There is a reason we study history, beyond the fact that middle-school kids like primitive weapons and fake blood. History distills for us what leadership looks like. The United States has been lucky at crucial junctures. We got Washington in the beginning. We got Lincoln when the Union was torn apart. We got Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II.
Great leaders unite disparate factions to some greater end. Petty politicians do the opposite.