On Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it’s worth reflecting that, as great as Ronald Reagan was, he followed in the footsteps of the greatest Republican communicator. That title belongs to the party’s first president. In reading Lincoln’s speeches, one can easily imagine how he would have responded to President Obama: powerfully, directly, clearly. Lincoln was exceptionally good at talking straightforwardly and forcibly to the American people. He was incredibly well-reasoned, folksy yet elevated, poetic yet plain-spoken. The key to victory for the GOP is putting forth and honing articulate, likable candidates with the capacity to emulate — in their own way, in their own vein — something of Lincoln’s outstanding rhetorical example.
The truth of this was showcased two weeks ago today, when President Obama got the better of most of his Republican questioners at the House Republican Conference in Baltimore, by slipping, sliding, and filibustering — scoring quick points with a jab or two and then dancing around the ring and avoiding any direct blows. The notable exception was his exchange with Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Ryan followed the Lincoln model. He was knowledgeable, prepared, and direct. He asked the president a question about the 84-percent increase in domestic discretionary spending under his administration and this Congress. The president gave a typically longwinded reply, referencing a conversation he’d had with Peter Orszag just before the event — “because I suspected I’d be hearing this argument” — and confidently explaining, “The fact of the matter is that most of the increases in this year’s budget — this past year’s budget — were not as a consequence of policies that we initiated, but instead were built in as a consequence of the automatic stabilizers that kick in because of this enormous recession.”
More than three minutes later, when he finally got the chance, Ryan replied, “I would simply say that automatic stabilizer spending is mandatory spending. The discretionary spending, the bills that Congress signs — that you sign — into law, that has increased 84 percent.”
The president couldn’t move on fast enough. He interjected and rapidly stammered, “All right, we’ll — we’ll — we’ll — we’ll have a longer debate on the budget numbers then, all right?” and immediately moved on to the next questioner. As she began her easy-to-parry remarks, he took a much-needed drink of water and no doubt sighed inwardly in relief (see from 33:30 to 39:00, and especially 38:00 to 39:00).
The Republican party is the party of Lincoln. Its members should never stop reminding themselves, or the American people, of that fact. And its members should never stop trying to emulate Lincoln’s extraordinary example of how to advance principled political ideas.