Over the weekend, Senator John Kerry challenged President Bush to monthly debates. Kerry issued the challenge in Quincy, Illinois, site of the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858. The locale fit a Kerry campaign theme. With his lanky frame and well-lined face (Botox rumors notwithstanding), Kerry is hoping that people will link him with the Great Emancipator. A Google search of “Kerry” and “Lincolnesque” yields some 323 hits.
But Kerry has a lot more in common with Stephen A. Douglas than with Abraham Lincoln.
When he clinched the Democratic nomination, Kerry warned of “the Republican attack machine.” A Kerry press release said that the Bush strategy was to divert attention from the issues: “attack to distract.” And in last week’s open-mike incident, he labeled Bush and his team the “most crooked, you know, lying group I’ve ever seen.”
Kerry and his writers must have been reading Douglas’s script. In the fourth debate in Charleston, Illinois, Douglas said that he had suffered “more assaults, perhaps more abuse than any man living of my age, or who ever did live.” Lincoln, he said, in the fifth debate in Galesburg, was seeking “to divert public attention from the enormity of his revolutionary principles by impeaching men’s sincerity and integrity, and inviting personal quarrels.” Referring to a criticism by Senator Lyman Trumbull, a Lincoln ally, Douglas sputtered: “Trumbull then knew it was a lie.”
While complaining about the nastiness of the Bush campaign, the Kerry team has not hesitated to go after Bush with harsh, even obscene language. (Go to the Kerry website’s search box, type in a familiar Anglo-Saxon verb, and see what I mean.) Kerry is echoing Ross Perot’s old “economic treason” arguments, accusing Bush of helping “Benedict Arnold CEOs and companies.” Douglas showed a similar aggressiveness. In their first debate in Ottawa, Illinois, he said that Lincoln’s opposition to the Mexican American War constituted “taking the side of the common enemy against his own country.”
Kerry most closely resembles Douglas in his views on the Constitution and the Supreme Court. In an interview last year, he said: “I think people who go to the Supreme Court ought to interpret the Constitution as it is interpreted, and if they have another point of view, then they’re not supporting the Constitution, which is what a judge does.”
Kerry was trying to defend his “pro-choice” litmus test without calling it a litmus test or even touching the merits of the abortion debate itself. As Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out at the time, Kerry was suggesting that he would never name a justice who would vote to overturn a previous decision. Until the Thirteenth Amendment, Dred Scott would thus have had to stand.
Stephen Douglas took that position. In a speech in Chicago he said: “I have no warfare to make on the Supreme Court of the United States, either on account of that or any other decision which they have pronounced from that bench.” Although any lawyer may argue any side on a pending case, he added, “when the decision is made, my private opinion, your opinion, all other opinions, must yield to the majesty of that authoritative adjudication.” In speech in Bloomington, Illinois, he attacked Lincoln for his “crusade” against the court. “Unless we respect and bow in deference to the final decisions of the highest judicial tribunal in our country, we are driven at once to anarchy, to violence, to mob law, and there is no security left for our property, or our own civil rights.”
Remember that Douglas was speaking of a decision holding that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
In the first debate, Lincoln answered with words that Kerry might ponder today. “This man sticks to a decision which forbids the people of a Territory from excluding slavery, and he does so not because he says it is right in itself,–he does not give any opinion on that,–but because it has been decided by the court; and being decided by the court, he is, and you are, bound to take it in your political action as law, not that he judges at all of its merits, but because a decision of the court is to him a `Thus saith the Lord.’ He places it on that ground alone; and you will bear in mind that thus committing himself unreservedly to this decision, commits him to the next one just as firmly as to this.”
–John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.