Look to Lincoln to solve 'fiscal cliff'

As the Spielberg movie 'Lincoln' and many books about Abraham Lincoln reveal, solving difficult standoffs in Washington takes more than savvy politics and horse-trading. Lincoln had to first turn to deeper ideals that then helped him win allies.

David James/DreamWorks/Twentieth Century Fox/AP
In a scene from Steven Spielberg's film drama "Lincoln," actor Daniel Day-Lewis poses as President Abraham Lincoln during a political struggle with Congress over ending slavery.

Today marks the 147th anniversary of the passage of the US Constitution’s 13th Amendment and its ban on slavery. Might the struggle over its passage in Congress – the focus of the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln” – provide insight for the current political fight over the “fiscal cliff”?

The movie, like many books about Lincoln, reveals how coalitions were formed, deals cut, and favors granted to garner votes for the amendment. This is the stuff of hard-knuckle politics. In a nation divided over difficult topics, tactics and self-interest often receive more attention than the nation's underlying principles do.

It’s easy during the messy process of democracy – or a civil war – to lose sight of what’s really at stake. This week, for example, Congress seems intent on debating such side issues as the future of the filibuster and the potential blame for no budget compromise. This takes the debate even further from the immediate issues of tax rates and entitlement cuts. Yet the process itself would be improved if negotiators together examined instead the deeper ideals at stake.

For Lincoln, saving the Union and ending slavery were essential and mixed together. But these profound issues forced him to examine his beliefs, sort out the highest priorities, and then articulate them. The clarity of his commitment to both the American ideal of civic equality and the biblical basis for it led him to cut through the thicket of politics, sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and later gain passage of the 13th Amendment.

Many scholars of American presidents try to define each leader’s core beliefs, seeing them as essential to understanding historic decisions or creating consensus. A presidential candidate today is even obliged to reveal his or her religious background – as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama quickly learned – even though the Constitution bans a religious test on candidates.

Mr. Obama and leading lawmakers could possibly find a way to negotiate a deal if they were more forthcoming about how their core personal beliefs, religious or not, would inform their motivations on the fiscal issues. This would elevate the debate and help them find common ground.

Lincoln is a model for that. The many books about him focus on the evolution of his religious beliefs, especially how adversity led to his growth in understanding the Bible and then applying it to public issues, such as slavery, as well as in his personal life. He sought to put the Founders’ ideal of equality on a firmer basis than the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

The late scholar Elton Trueblood, author of the 1973 book “Abraham Lincoln: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership,” points to an 1858 address by Lincoln, part of his debate with Judge Douglas, as insightful:

“My friend has said to me that I am a poor hand to quote Scripture. I will try it again, however. It is said in one of the admonitions of the Lord, ‘As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect.’ The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect as the Father in Heaven.... He set that up as a standard, and he who did most toward reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature.”

Many scholars, like Mr. Trueblood, contend that Lincoln found his guide in the struggle over slavery in the first chapter of Scripture: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him” (Genesis 1:27). In his book, Trueblood wrote: “It followed that no person, of whatever color or nationality, was a mere thing to be bought and sold. Here is perhaps the most revolutionary idea in the world because, if it were ever truly followed, it would overcome all barriers to human development.”

Politicians these days rarely talk to each other in such ways, perhaps because speaking in absolutes must be tempered with humility and self-effacement to avoid the danger of zealousness.

Yet when the world’s largest economy faces a sudden shock caused by political gridlock, it is time for both sides to speak of fundamentals rather than interests. Lincoln did and it fixed a big hole in the Constitution. Fixing the national debt should be far easier.

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