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02.12.09

How the Party of Lincoln Forgot About Lincoln

On Abe’s 200th birthday, it seems everyone wants a piece of the Great Emancipator. Except the Republicans, that is, who have wiled away the legacy of their one-time standard-bearer.

On Abe’s 200th birthday, it seems everyone wants a piece of the Great Emancipator. Except the Republicans, that is, who have wiled away the legacy of their one-time standard-bearer. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and rarely has Honest Abe been in such demand.

Our nation's first African-American president—also a self-made lawyer from Illinois—rarely loses an opportunity to compare himself to the Great Emancipator. There are new documentaries like Looking for Lincoln on PBS and best-selling biographies like Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals that inform our political debates. Lincoln looms large because his wisdom, integrity, and humility are always in short supply among politicians.

But for the Republican Party this anniversary is at best bittersweet. Lincoln was, of course, the first Republican president—and the GOP has called itself with justifiable pride "the Party of Lincoln" ever since. And, yes, just weeks ago they elected the first African-American chairman of their party, marking a considerable step towards reclaiming their roots.

Since the civil rights era there have been only three African-American Republicans elected to Congress, while there have been 93 Democrats.

But the Party of Lincoln has really become the Party of Reagan in instinct and self-conception. It is ideologically conservative and traditionalist—whereas Lincoln's Republican Party was the progressive party of its day. It finds philosophical structure in federalism and states' rights, concepts that comforted southern Democrats of the John C. Calhoun variety. And perhaps not coincidentally, the party's strongest support now comes from the states of the former Confederacy.

But the most obvious sign that the GOP might have lost Lincoln is the diversity gap between the two parties. Think back to the difference between the crowds at Chicago’s Grant Park on election night and those clustered at the Biltmore in Arizona. It's a contrast that grows more stark when seen through the eyes of history.

Of the 23 African-Americans who served in Congress before 1900, every single one was a Republican. They would not have dreamed of being anything but members of the Party of Lincoln.

But since the civil rights era there have been only three African-American Republicans elected to Congress—Massachusetts' Ed Brooke, Connecticut's Gary Franks and Oklahoma's JC Watts—while there have been 93 Democrats.

The Party of Lincoln has almost entirely lost the allegiance of the African-American community to the point where the historical reasons for this alliance seem dusty and irrelevant. There have been historic appointments of African-American Republicans to high office—Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condi Rice—but to date the electoral aspirations of African-American Republicans have been basically D.O.A. because the party is not seen as representing their community.

"They can't appeal to African Americans and at the same time oppose everything that's in the interest of African-Americans," Sen. Ed Brooke told me. "When you talk about equality and justice, you can't just preach, you've got to act. That old statement of Abraham Lincoln's—that government should do for people only what they cannot do for themselves—depends on knowing that there are some people who cannot do for themselves. It's got to be a party with a head and a heart."

Michael Steele's election as RNC Chairman at least recognizes the problem and offers the opportunity to heal the breach and regain credibility as the Party of Lincoln again. It's not only in the GOP's long-term electoral interest, it's in America's interest, because it is not healthy for our republic to have race be part of a partisan divide.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon also served as Director of Speechwriting and Deputy Director of Policy for Rudy Giuliani's Presidential Campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as Chief Speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He worked on Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign.