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Ruth Marcus: A cliffhanger in the White House

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: November 23, 2012

And there are alternative routes to a congressman's vote, if not his heart. Lincoln employs, even as he maintains a dignified presidential distance from, a rascally trio of lobbyists dispatched to cajole Democrats to support the amendment.

As Lincoln tells his Cabinet, the election means that there will be “64 Democrats looking for work come March,” and any number of postmaster positions and other patronage jobs to dispense. To point this out is not to endorse bribery but to observe that part of effective congressional relations is grasping the practical needs of those whose votes you seek.

“Lincoln” has instructional value for lawmakers as well. I happened to see “Lincoln” at a screening (not in the White House) that included about a dozen members of Congress, and I could hear their murmurings of assent or rueful recognition.

The members chuckled when Seward, noting that Lincoln could not afford to lose any Republican votes, asks, “Since when has our party unanimously supported anything?” They chuckled even louder when Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican abolitionist, lectures Lincoln, “I lead — you ought to try it.”

Congress is composed of individuals, in both parties, who are better than their institutions allow. They want to do the right thing for their country, even if it means bucking their party or compromising in the service of progress.

Like its Civil War predecessor, the closing days of the 112th Congress can be another moment when politics transcends partisanship and Lincoln's better angels emerge.



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