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A Place in the Present Where History Meets Fiction

Abe’s Advice for Campaigners and Future Presidents

The first two debates are over. Tonight, Barack and Mitt throw down again. The campaign is in its third act. And what would Lincoln be thinking about it now? What advice would he give? Here are ten suggestions Lincoln might make.

Keep Your Counsel. Better to stay silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt. Romney should remember this, even when he’s speaking before small audiences of like-minded people. It’s unlikely that Lincoln would ever say anything so damning about the American electorate as Romney did about the 47%. And there were no secret recording devices back then, no electronic gotcha opportunities. Still, Lincoln was careful to say nothing until he was ready to say it. For example, he would never allow anyone else to expound for him on Emancipation until he issued the Proclamation. And he was careful not to say it until the public was ready to hear it. When Senator Sumner urged him to free the slaves of the Fourth of July, 1862, he simply said, “Wait, wait, Senator. Emancipation is a thunderbolt that will keep.”

Keep an Open Mind. He would tell Romney not to worry about his image as a flip flopper who will say whatever he must to win a debate point or a vote. Lincoln was charged with that one, too, especially during the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Douglas charged that in Abolition counties, Lincoln was for Abolition. In slave-favoring counties, he was not. But Lincoln then, and in his presidency, was ready to consider all options, and a change of mind might be one more example of a growth.

Keep pushing forward, no matter the polls or public opinion. This one works for both candidates. Lincoln, like Obama in the first debate, sometimes appeared exhausted by the weight of his office. But he soldiered on. And like Romney after his 47% stumble, Lincoln had to confront the possibility of losing the 1864 election, but he put it out of his mind and soldiered on.

Keep to your principles. If you have something you believe in - Romney and his tax cuts, Obama and his executive order opening the pathway for citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants - hold fast. Once Lincoln issued his most important executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, he never wavered. In 1864 his political allies would ask him if he would reconsider the policy in order to win the presidential election. He said that he could never send freed black troops back to slavery. “If I did, I would be damned in time and eternity.”

Keep learning from history. Lincoln would like to know that President Obama invoked him in the first debate, because history offers lessons to teach both candidates. Isn’t it amazing, Obama said, what can happen when people work together? Obama cited the achievements of Lincoln’s administration in spite of the Civil War: the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College act, the transcontinental railroad. Of course, Lincoln might point out that the great advantage he had was control of both houses of Congress and strong allies who pushed his legislative agenda.

Keep human nature in mind when you consider historical precedents. Lincoln would remind Obama that the kind of partisanship that has dogged him throughout his presidency is the rule rather than the exception in Washington. Obama wishes for something that generally doesn’t happen in American politics, subject as it is to the foibles and flaws of human nature: cooperation. It's a rare commodity among self-interested politicians. So prepare for partisanship.

Keep the attention span of your audience. Lincoln knew how to deliver a stem-winder, and in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, he and his opponent went at it for hours. But people expected that. They had traveled hours to hear the debates. However, Lincoln managed, in two short inaugurals and a Gettysburg Address of only 270 words, to say more with less than any president before or since. In their first debate, Romney seemed to understand his audience and the television medium. His answers were short, self-contained, crisp. Obama went on as if he were lecturing from a podium in a college classroom.

Keep smiling. Lincoln often said that if not for the funny stories he told, read, and enjoyed, he might hang himself. The pressures of the office are inconceivable. So are the pressures of a campaign. So keep smiling, even in the debates. Mr. Romney, replace the out of character street-fighting aggression with a little wit, a little humor, if you have any that hasn't been scripted by someone else. Show that you are comfortable in your own skin. Neither candidate can do this as well as Lincoln could, but it’s worth a try. A corollary: Smiling does not mean grinning like the Joker to show contempt for your opponent. (see Biden, Joe.)

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. As Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out in Team of Rivals, Lincoln drew his opponents into his cabinet and drew on their expertise, despite their attitudes toward him. He might tell Romney and Obama to the same thing.

Keep Murphy’s Law and the Law of Unintended Consequences Embroidered in Your Mind. Neither candidate can know what’s coming in the next few weeks or, if elected, the next few years. But they should know that if something can go wrong, it will, and even if it doesn’t, it will bring results you are not expecting. When Americans assembled at the Capitol to hear Lincoln’s inaugural in 1861, they had no idea that the secession dispute would lead to a war that would be the bloodiest in American history and result in the total eradication of slavery, north and south. Presidential candidates must learn to do all that they can to control events. But they must learn to react to events, too. In politics, as in warfare, the plan never survives the first battlefield contact.

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