The Republican President was accused of getting the country into an unpopular war that was killing scores of American soliders. Under his leadership that country was more divided than ever before. The President had been accused of infringing upon the most basic civil liberties, holding individuals as enemy combatants and granting sweeping powers to law enforcement.
The Democrats were dealing with in-fighting between the hardcore opposition to the war and those who wanted to show that they would be more effective in fighting it. They ended up nominating a former war hero who was to show a more credible face to the public.
Except we’re not talking about 2004, but 1864, an election in which Abraham Lincoln was facing the political challenge of his life from Gen. George B. McClellan. The election of 1864 provides many interesting parallels with today, although the threat of the war on terrorism is more distant than the threat this country faced during the Civil War. However, it’s important to note that our romanticized view of Abraham Lincoln is more the result of posterity than the political reality of his time. During the Civil War Lincoln was often a divisive figure who attracted the ire of those who felt that his taking the country to war was an unwise decision. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a very controversial decision at the time, and Lincoln even suspended the right of habeas corpus in order to catch Confederate terrorists who had slipped into the Union to start riots. (Indeed the Confederates did start significant draft riots in New York during the Civil War).
Today, Bush faces many of the same complaints that Lincoln faced in 1864. The Democrats then as now had a significant peace movement that wished to end the war and bring the soldiers home. Many Democrats (and even some Republicans) were wary of the way in which the President had infringed upon civil rights in order to catch terrorist saboteurs. While it’s an open question as to whether posterity will be as kind to Bush as it was to Lincoln, the circumstances surroudning their re-election campaigns are eerily similar in many regards.
Likewise, the comparison between the Democrats of today and 1864 are highly interesting. Like Kerry, McClellan was a war hero in a predominantly anti-war party. McClellan grew up as a member of the Philadelphia aristocracy, as Kerry is a member of the Massachusetts elite. McClellan’s military record is more similar to that of Wesley Clark in some ways, both were commanding generals who had been removed from their posts for arrogant and egotistical behavior. However, McClellan, like Kerry and unlike Clark, he was generally adored by the troops under his command. McClellan was also a well-spoken and charismatic individual that presented Lincoln with a formidable political adversary for the crucial election.
With the war in the South looking increasingly difficult, and Union casualties in numbers that were unheard of, Lincoln feared that he would lose the election. He ensured that his cabinet would work with McClellan if he were to be elected in order to crush the Confederacy before Inauguration Day. McClellan’s VP nominee, George Pendleton of Ohio was a “peace Democrat” who supported ending the war and negotiating a peace with the Confederacy. Lincoln feared that a Democratic White House would eventually pursue a policy of appeasement to the rebels, and Lincoln could not bear such a policy taking place.
The campaign of 1864 was one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history. The Democrats accused Lincoln of representing the mixing of the races, playing to the racism of the day. The Republicans returned by tacitly (and many time directly) accusing the Democrats of being traitors, including leaking a report that indicated that the New York political machine was in bed with the Confederates – an accusation that had some basis in truth. Thomas Nast, the editorial cartoonist who invented the elephant and donkey symbols, as well as the modern character of Santa Claus, drew a poisonous cartoon called "The Chicago Platform" which the Republicans reprinted as campaign material.
The Democrats main bases of support were among the urban elite and the Irish and German immigrants that had flooded the country in recent years. However, despite this base of support, McClellan found himself losing decisively in the Electoral College, gathering only 21 Electoral College votes compared to Lincoln’s 212. The popular vote was considerably closer, with Lincoln gathering 55% of the popular vote.
In the end, Lincoln won due to a bit of luck – the mood of the country was divided, but still tended to be supporting of the war. At the same time, the Confederacy began to crumble after the capture and burning of Atlanta. Lincoln had the benefit of the support of pro-war Democrats such as Andrew Johnson, who later became his VP nominee in 1864. Had these events gone differently, it is quite possible to imagine a President George B. McClellan having been the 17th President of the United States rather than Andrew Johnson.
Granted, Bush is not Lincoln, and John Kerry is not George McClellan. However, the way in which the 1864 election became a divisive and highly partisan election does give us some lessons about the way in which 2004 will likely go. At the end of the day, however, 1864 showed that the Republican message that it would be unwise to change horses in mid-race is a message that works politically. If the issues that motivates voters are issues of national security, Kerry and McClellan could very well share the same fate.