President Lincoln, one of my favorites, is a bona fide celebrity these days. He fights vampires, gets the Spielberg treatment and enjoys regular shout-outs from our commander in chief. If he were alive today he’d be on the cover of People Magazine every week.
The affection is entirely deserved, but I think Republicans, as they attempt to pick up the pieces of their broken hearts and wounded egos, can take a lesson from a lesser-known president, one that barely gets any attention at all.
James A. Garfield served but 200 days in office, his term cut short by a lunatic assassin. As Candice Millard’s riveting account of his life and death, “Destiny of the Republic” lays out, he was nominated as the result of a civil war within the Republican party – a war between the Stalwarts and the Half-breeds. At odds with Republican leadership in the Senate, his own vice president undermining him at every turn, Garfield’s task was bringing the party together. When he was assassinated, Republicans turned on each other, calling for high-ranking Stalwarts to be lynched in retribution. Garfield’s party ultimately came together to take up his unfinished mantle – things like total equality for freed slaves, ridding politics of a corrupt spoils system and education for all. Important stuff. Stuff that our party should be proud of.
For all the hand wringing over the inevitable civil war within the current GOP, things aren’t nearly as bad as Garfield had it. But it’s up to conservatives to do what they failed to over the past four years. It’s not enough to merely say that conservative policies are better. We have to say why.
Why is keeping more of your own money better for women and young people? Why is legal immigration ultimately more economically empowering for Hispanics than amnesty? Why is sweeping entitlement reform going to protect baby boomers down the road? Why has expanding welfare programs increased poverty and widened income inequality?
This is our heavy lift. We have to show why conservatism is more compassionate, more effective and healthier for our economic future. The party isn’t doomed, or hopeless, or at war, as some prominent conservative voices have bemoaned. It just needs to remember what made it great in the first place.