Published August 28, 2008
The possibility that Republican presidential nominee John McCain might choose Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate has sent the right into a tizzy. There are many arguments for and against such a decision, but the debate so far has assumed such a selection would be unprecedented.
It wouldn’t. Abraham Lincoln chose former Democrat Andrew Johnson as his vice president in 1864. That episode ended unhappily, for reasons directly relevant to the current situation.
Republicans in 1864, like Republicans today, faced uncertain election prospects in the middle of a war whose outcome and popularity were also uncertain. Lincoln maneuvered within his party in the first half of the year to forestall a serious challenge from unhappy party activists. But even after he was renominated, he despaired of re-election.
With the survival of the Union at stake, it was not surprising that Lincoln and Republican stalwarts sought to broaden the party’s appeal to those Democrats who supported the war effort. Their gaze turned toward Tennessee Sen. Andrew Johnson, the only senator from a secessionist state who had not abandoned Congress. Staunchly pro-Union, Johnson was unfailing in his efforts on behalf of Lincoln’s war efforts.
With victory on the battlefield uncertain, the Republicans cast aside sitting Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. They even renamed the party to make clear the issue on which the election would be fought: Lincoln and Johnson were nominated on the National Union Party ticket.
These calculations made sense under the circumstances. The Civil War was the only issue that mattered to the electorate; all domestic issues were swept aside in its path. The Democrats’ platform condemned the war as a failure, advocated cessation of hostilities, and contemplated negotiation with the South. In short, the 1864 Democrats were a party of peace over victory, while the National Unionists were a party of peace through victory. Since the future of the war was essential to the future of the nation, all other considerations had to be cast aside.
But the Republicans would have cause to rue their choice. Following the party’s June convention, Democratic hopes for the presidency would begin to fade as Union forces began to roll up victories on the battlefield. And after the election, victory in the war became apparent. By April 1865–a mere one month after Lincoln’s re-inauguration–the South surrendered. But Lincoln was also dead; and a Republican-dominated Congress had to deal with a lifelong Democrat as president.
Johnson shared Republican Party war aims, but little else. He did not approve of the domestic policy of the Republican majority. He’d spent a career attacking Whig and Republican efforts to improve the economy through encouragement of private enterprise as efforts to empower the rich at the expense of the common man. What’s more, he strongly disagreed with the Republican approach toward dealing with the South and the newly freed slaves. His policies–including a veto of the first Civil Rights Act, and opposition to the 14th Amendment–caused so much friction that he became the first president to be impeached by Congress and came within one vote from being removed from office.
This long-ago effort at a bipartisan ticket has clear lessons for today. First, placing someone from the other party with whom you have strong agreement only on the prosecution of a war can only be justified if that war’s outcome is crucial to the survival of the nation and the outcome of that war is both uncertain and imminent.
Whatever is left of the conflict in Iraq does not meet that test. Defeat in Iraq would harm American interests, but it would not imminently threaten our survival. Much like Vietnam, there would be time for new leaders to repair the damage and restore American prestige and influence.
Nor does the prosecution of the long war on terror justify placing Mr. Lieberman on the ticket. Prosecuting this war towards ultimate victory is incredibly important, but it will take years, if not decades.
The domestic issues on which Republicans and Mr. Lieberman have major differences are pressing and cannot be ignored. The Bush tax cuts expire by 2010; at least two Supreme Court vacancies will likely come open during the next presidency; Social Security benefits start to exceed taxes around 2017. Republican voters must be assured that their votes will be cast for a team that understands and embraces Republican values and priorities.
One must also contemplate the awful possibility that President McCain will not survive his term. Do Republican voters want to see a President Lieberman negotiate with a Democratic Congress on taxes, entitlements, judicial nominees and abortion? To ask this question is to answer it.
The Republican Party will be undergoing an internal debate as to what principles will animate it in the coming years. This is a necessary debate, one long suppressed by the party’s hold on levers of power.
But a McCain-Lieberman party would have so many disagreements on so many issues that it would be defined by one issue only: war. Such a party would be the war party not only in the sense that it supports the successful prosecution of the Iraq war, but in the sense that it has no reason to exist apart from the continued prosecution of future wars–against terrorism, against a truculent Russia, against a resurgent China. As important as meeting these challenges are, there is no example of any such party so founded and so constituted surviving for an extended period in a modern democracy.
John McCain is an honorable man who understands both the need for courage and the need for compromise. But as a military man, he surely also understands that a general is only successful as long as his troops are willing to lay down their lives for a cause greater than themselves.
In politics, one’s troops are one’s party, and one’s party is motivated by both personality and principle. Mr. McCain’s personality is sufficient to inspire loyalty. He must take care with his vice presidential selection, and his subsequent decisions, to cultivate a sense of principle that can inspire party members to make the necessary sacrifices.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.