Happy President's Day Abe, from the Party of Lincoln
Six days after Abraham Lincoln's 204th birthday, the Great Emancipator is very much in the news on this President's Day. Pundits, polls and politicians of both parties are once again recognizing America's 16th president as its greatest. Inspired by the Oscar-nominated film, a Mississippi physician prompted his state to formally and finally ratify the 13th Amendment banning slavery.
But within the Party of Lincoln are many who are not so enamored with the GOP's namesake. One hundred and forty eight years after the end of the Civil War, the whitewashing of slavery, the resurrection of the "Lost Cause," the championing of states' rights and the casual endorsement of nullification and secession are among the modern Republican Party's tributes to Abraham Lincoln.
Consider, for example, the example of Virginia Republicans. While Democratic state senator and civil rights leader Henry Marsh was attending President Obama's second inauguration in Washington, Republicans last month voted for an unprecedented redistricting of their state. But the indignity hardly ended there. As Kevin Drum reported on January 21:
But wait! That's not all. The deed was done on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and at the end of the session Republicans adjourned in memory of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, whose birthday is today.
That GOP attempted coup died when Republican Governor and 2016 White House wannabe Bob McDonnell signaled he would not sign the redistricting bill. But in April 2010, Governor McDonnell did sign a proclamation recognizing Confederate History Month and the South's "four year war...for independence." Within days, however, McDonnell was forced to apologize after it was revealed that his proclamation did not recognize the existence slavery. (The next month, Texas conservatives approved an overhaul of the state's textbooks which would remove the word "slave" from the term "slave trade.")
For then Mississippi Governor and former RNC chairman Haley Barbour, McDonnell's supposed oversight was nothing to get exercised about. As he explained:
"To me it's a sort of feeling that it's just a nit. That it is not significant. It's trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn't matter for diddly."
Of course, the preservation of white supremacy mattered a great deal to the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the dreaded White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days. Which is why Barbour, who campaigned for governor wearing a lapel pin of the state's Confederate flag he vowed to maintain, was a fixture at the CCC's events.
Barbour's fellow Mississippi Republican, Trent Lott, similarly extended a hand to the CCC. The former Senate Majority Leader and later Minority Whip (you can't make this stuff up) was a speaker in 1992 at an event of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Among its offerings in seething racial hatred is a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln. Lott's also offered his rebel yell in the virulently neo-Confederate Southern Partisan, where in 1984 he called the Civil War "the war of aggression." That was years before he lauded the legendary racist and 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond:
"I want to say this about my state: when Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
As it turns out, Lott's path was also traveled by former Missouri Senator and Bush Attorney General, John Ashcroft. Ashcroft granted a long interview with the Southern Partisan, in which he stated:
"Your magazine helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."
And for many of today's Republicans, the real perverted agenda is the province of Democrats, and includes health care reform, women's reproductive rights and gun-control among its Yankee sins.
Take, for example, Georgia Congressman and Senate candidate Paul Broun. Broun, who last week boasted that he was the first member of Congress to brand Barack Obama a "Marxist-Leninist", had a different warning in 2010 about what would become the Affordable Care Act:
"If ObamaCare passes, that free insurance card that's in people's pockets is gonna be as worthless as a Confederate dollar after the War Between The States -- the Great War of Yankee Aggression."
As it turns out, Broun wasn't the first Republican to recall the Lost Cause in announcing his opposition to President Obama's policies. In February 2009, Missouri Republican Bryan Stevenson took exception to President Obama's support for the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation which sought to codify the reproductive rights protections of Roe v. Wade nationwide:
"What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the war of northern aggression."
Of course, the next logical step for the neo-Confederates of the GOP was to threaten secession. And in April 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested to a furious Tea Party rally that the secession option should be on the table:
Perry told reporters following his speech that Texans might get so frustrated with the government they would want to secede from the union.
"There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that."
To be sure, violating the oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States is an odd definition of patriotism. Sadly for Perry and the GOP secessionists, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia crushed their hopes:
"If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede."
But even short of secession, the Party of Lincoln seems determined to unlearn another lesson of the Civil War by championing state nullification of federal laws. Suggesting that South Carolina's effort to nullify federal tariffs starting in 1828 was a blessing, Obamacare foes began claiming state sovereignty trumps the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The new "Tentherism" was embodied by Minnesota State Senator Tom Emmer, the Republicans' ultimately unsuccessful choice to succeed Governor Tim Pawlenty. As TPM recounted:
He has even proposed a state constitutional amendment that would allow federal laws to operate in Minnesota only if they were consented to by super-majorities of the state legislature.
Now, GOP legislatures are turning to nullification in response to the modest package of gun violence reforms proposed by President Obama:
Despite near-universal condemnation from legal scholars calling their proposed state statutes "outrageously unenforceable" and "pure political theater," Republicans in Arizona and Texas are advocating for "gun secession bills" nullifying federal laws and making their enforcement within state lines a felony. Encouraged by Governor Phil Bryant, Mississippi Republican state Reps. Gary Chism and Jeff Smith filed a bill this month to form a "Joint Legislative Committee on the Neutralization of Federal Laws." The Mississippi Balance of Powers Act reads in part:
If the Mississippi State Legislature votes by simple majority to neutralize any federal statute, mandate or executive order on the grounds of its lack of proper constitutionality, then the state and its citizens shall not recognize or be obligated to live under the statute, mandate or executive order.
As it turns out, gun control opponents have another argument. If only African-Americans had been armed, slavery would never have happened. As Gun Appreciation Day chairman Larry Ward explained:
"I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country's founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history."
Of course, Republicans have been claiming for years that abortion rights are the equivalent of slavery. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) declared that Planned Parenthood is "a racist organization and it continues to target minorities for abortion destruction." Pro-choice Americans, Ohio legislator Matt Huffman are no different than slave owners. Suggesting that women's control over their own bodies is no different than master over a slave's, Personhood Mississippi compared Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott. And while some Southern Republicans compared health care reform to the "Great War of Yankee Aggression", Louisiana GOP Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao ultimately opposed it over abortion coverage he wrongly claimed was provided by the Affordable Care Act. "For me abortion is such a moral evil, at a par with slavery," Cao said, "that I cannot in good conscience support a bill that seeks to expand it." Three years, Arizona Rep. Trent Franks declared that legal abortion is even worse:
In this country, we had slavery for God knows how long. And now we look back on it and we say "How brave were they? What was the matter with them? You know, I can't believe, you know, four million slaves. This is incredible." And we're right, we're right. We should look back on that with criticism. It is a crushing mark on America's soul. And yet today, half of all black children are aborted. Half of all black children are aborted. Far more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by policies of slavery.
As we fast forward to President's Day 2013, Americans learned that Mississippi only this month finally passed the 13th Amendment. But for the Republican Party, sometimes it seems as if the Civil War and the constitutional amendments which followed it never happened at all. When the GOP found itself unable to prevent three-fifths of the Senate from voting for Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court in May 2010, Republicans instead suggested the Founders' three-fifths of a person standard for counting slaves was no defect. As the Republican National Committee charged:
"Does Kagan Still View Constitution 'As Originally Drafted And Conceived' As 'Defective'?"
Happy President's Day Abe, from the Party of Lincoln.