When Abraham Lincoln decided to run for a second term in the midst of the Civil War, he used a homespun analogy that nearly everybody could relate to: "You don't swap horses in the middle of a stream." In 1864, after all, people still rode horses to go places. Often they had to take their horses across streams, and all knew perfectly well that a stream was no place to be swapping horses. Later, in 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt revived the same image, in order to justify his bid for an unprecedented third term as president. Even though by then most people were driving automobiles, the analogy still had an impact.
Both Lincoln and FDR had the gift, so necessary for success in democratic systems of government, of offering simple and homey analogies to justify their policies. But the same gift can be used to attack one's political opponent as well, as Hillary Clinton demonstrated last Sunday in Iowa. In essence, Senator Clinton declared: The war in Iraq is Bush's mess, and it is his job to clean it up before I become President and have to do it myself.
More precisely, Senator Clinton argued that it was Bush's "decision to go to war with an ill-conceived plan and an incompetently executed strategy." That is, the Iraq war is Bush's mess. "We expect him to extricate our country from this before he leaves office." That is, we expect him to clean up his mess. Bush has said that this cleaning up the Iraq mess was "going to be left to his successor," namely, Senator Clinton herself, a prospect which explains the Senator's final outburst, "I think it is the height of irresponsibility and I really resent it." (Italics mine.)
And why shouldn't she resent it? Would you like to wake up one day, find that you are the President and that it is up to you to bring stability and order out of the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq?
The moral punch of the Senator's underlying analogy is obvious. We can all grasp it just as readily as Lincoln's compatriots could grasp his conceit about swapping horses in the middle of a stream. If someone else has made a mess, it's his job to clean it up—not yours or mine. For example, if mom comes home one day and finds that her sons have been playing paintball in the dinning room, it's their duty to clean up the mess they've made—not mom's. Nor could we blame mom for being resentful if, despite the obvious right and wrong of the situation, she ended up, as she often does, with the task of removing the splattered paint all by herself. Indeed, it is possible that Senator Clinton's analogy will have an especially potent appeal to women voters, since women have traditionally been assigned the thankless task of cleaning up the mess their men folk and boy folk leave in their wake. What woman can't say, "Been there, done that?"
There is, however, a problem with Senator Clinton's analogy—a problem so serious that it forces us to wonder if she genuinely understands the nature of the office that she is currently seeking, and to see what I mean let us go back to the case of Mr. Lincoln.
When Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as President, he inherited a mess in comparison with which Iraq pales to insignificance. The states in the Deep South had already left the Union. The previous President, James Buchanan, had not lifted a finger to keep the vast majority of Federal forts and arsenals from falling into the hands of the new Confederacy. Buchanan's position was that the Constitution did not allow for states to secede, but at the same time, neither did it allow the Federal government to use coercion to keep them in the Union against their will. So what to do, except to do nothing?
The biggest mess of all, however, arose from the fact that the newly inaugurated President's government was still in control of two remaining military outposts in the Confederate States, Fort Moultrie in Florida and Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Had Buchanan given the order to evacuate both forts while he was still President, then Lincoln would not have been faced with the dreadful decision of whether to abandon them or to re-supply them when it was his turn to be President. By abandoning these forts, Lincoln knew he might avoid a civil war; by re-supplying them, he knew he would almost certainly begin one. Yet by abandoning the forts, Lincoln also knew that he would be abandoning the Union. Thus the choice that confronted Lincoln on obtaining the office of Presidency was the hideous alternative of disunion or civil war—in short, the mother of all messes.
Historians have, by and large, been exceedingly harsh on Buchanan. He should have done something decisive, the way Lincoln did. Yet Buchanan himself had no more choices than Lincoln did. Yes, Buchanan in theory could have acted decisively: he might have decisively let "the erring sisters" go in peace, or else he could have decisively started the blood bath that became known as the American Civil War. But in either case, Lincoln would have inherited the horrific consequences of Buchanan's very decisiveness—a raging civil war already in progress or a Confederacy of Southern States whose legitimacy had already been recognized by the North. In other words, no matter what Buchanan did or didn't do, Lincoln was bound to become President with an enormous mess on his hands. But that, we must remind ourselves—and Senator Clinton--is the nature of the American Presidency. If you become President, the chances are very good that you will have to start by taking responsibility for someone else's mess.
It is the Constitution, after all, that forces us to consider swapping horses on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years; it is the same document that, after FDR, forbids us to keep any horse for more than eight years. It is the Constitution that requires that our elections come like clockwork, despite the fact that sweeping and traumatic historical events, such as wars foreign and civil, seldom re-arrange their schedule to fit in with ours. It is, in short, the Constitution that makes it utterly inevitable that Presidents will often be forced to pass on their own messes to their successors and that these successors will be compelled to handle them as best they can—and to do so with the best grace they can manage.
No one is under any obligation to run as a candidate for the Presidency; but those who elect to do so are under a high and serious obligation to understand the nature of the office to which they are aspiring. If, like Lincoln, a future President Clinton finds herself confronted with a mess made by her predecessor in office, it will not be enough for her to blame Mr. Bush for his incompetence and mismanagement. It will avail her naught to continue to declare that Iraq is Bush's responsibility. By then, whether she likes it or not, Iraq will be her responsibility, and no one else's. If she refuses to recognize this unpleasant truth now, while still a candidate, how prepared will she be to recognize it when she is President and it is too late to throw the responsibility on someone else?
"We cannot escape history," Lincoln once said sadly and solemnly. We cannot undo what has been done; we cannot wish it away or blame it into oblivion; we cannot arbitrarily decide which parts of the past shall influence our future. We are stuck with what has been, and are constrained to make the best of it. History may or may not agree in blaming the mess in Iraq entirely on George Bush, as Senator Clinton has done; but history will not absolve his successor for refusing to take his—or her--responsibility for cleaning up the mess, regardless of who made it, or how it came about.
Is this fair? No, of course not. But then, history isn't fair, and those who resent this fact, as Senator Clinton appears to do, are well advised to steer clear of it.