Speaking Politics phrase of the week: 'Party of Lincoln'

Republicans and Democrats alike have cited Abraham Lincoln's legacy during the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, comparing Lincoln's founding party to the current GOP today. 

Nati Harnik/AP
James Mitchell, an Abraham Lincoln look-alike, interacts with members of the audience before an election rally by Republican vice presidential candidate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.

“Party of Lincoln”: A lamentation among critics of the current Republican Party of how far it has drifted from the 16th president’s era; for GOP lawmakers, a shorthand reminder of the party’s proud origins. 

If there’s anything left to agree on in politics, it’s probably that Abraham Lincoln was the country’s greatest president. His party emerged in 1854 out of a frenzy among northern states about the expansion of slavery into western territories and whether the political and economic system that controlled the South could dominate the national government. After the Civil War, African-Americans voted Republican for decades. 

With election debates centered on whether Donald Trump is a bigot, party-of-Lincoln references have soared. Searches for the term in July neared record levels, according to Google Trends.

“This is a moment of reckoning for every Republican dismayed that the party of Lincoln has become the party of Trump,” Hillary Clinton said last week in her speech sharply castigating her rival on racial and ethnic issues. 

Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, cited his father-in-law Linwood Holton, that state’s GOP governor from 1970 to 1974. “Lin’s still a Republican,” Kaine said. “But he’s voting for Democrats these days. Because any party that would nominate Donald Trump for president has moved too far away from the party of Lincoln.” 

Trump detractors on the right also invoke the comparison. The GOP “has failed one of the most basic tests of public justice: Don’t support racists — or candidates who appeal to racism — for public office,” former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote in his Washington Post column. “If this commitment is not a primary, non-negotiable element of Republican identity, then the party of Lincoln is dead.” 

Gerson’s fellow Post columnist, Kathleen Parker, asserted that the party’s problems predate Trump: “The party of Lincoln, a sometimes laughable bragging point for die-hards whose racial attitudes survived the Civil War intact, is long gone. Its dissolution began at least with Richard Nixon, who embraced a Southern strategy that pandered to racists and set the course for today’s GOP.” For that reason, Florida GOP political consultant Rick Wilson argued, “the party of Lincoln needs a complete, top-to-bottom reset.”

The references aren’t confined to Trump. When Maine’s combative GOP Gov. Paul LePage left an expletive-filled voicemail for a lawmaker who had accused him of racism – and challenged the man to a duel – the New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman tweeted, “Seems to be a pattern developing in the party of Lincoln. Its leaders react very strongly to being called racist.”

Trump, for his part, is invoking the party’s hero to try to emphasize Republicans’ historic record of welcoming everyone. “The GOP is the party of Abraham Lincoln,” Trump said in a recent speech. “And I want our party to be the home of the African-American voter once again.” He repeated the invocation of Honest Abe on Saturday in Des Moines, adding: “Nothing means more to me than working to make our party the home of the African-American vote once again.” 

Other Republicans say putting that into practice means focusing on what diverse talents it has. “The party of Lincoln must endeavor to behave like the party of Lincoln,” said Fred Malek, a business executive and adviser to several former GOP presidents and candidates. “The only party with two governors of Hispanic descent, two governors of Indian descent, three female governors and the only African-American US senator needs to celebrate the diversity of our country. “ 

Back on Inauguration Day 2009, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence, then an Indiana congressman, invoked the phrase with a well-meaning comment – if also back-handed compliment – of incoming President Obama.

“While I would have preferred that the first African-American president come from the party of Lincoln, the historic and monumental nature of today's inauguration is undeniable,” Pence said at the time. 

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” is out now. 

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