"We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us." -- President Abraham Lincoln, November 10, 1864.
The Civil War - the deadliest conflict in American history - raged at its fiercest in the summer of 1864. While the tide had begun to turn in the North's favor, the issue of the Union's preservation was still far from settled. Indeed, the Confederate army had approached within five miles of Washington, boldly attacking from the Maryland side under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal Early.
The attack was successfully repelled, but the event underscored how vulnerable the nation's capital - and the Union by extension - remained at that relatively late juncture.
Abraham Lincoln, a true war president, could have exploited Early's attack, among other battles, to call off the 1864 election in the name of "security" or "stability." But he chose not to do so. It was extremely important, he realized, that the American democratic process not be subverted by the ongoing conflict, critical as it was, even if it meant losing his office.
The election went on. Lincoln's loyalty to his country and its Constitution trumped any personal ambition to retain power. And he was duly rewarded, not just with his victory at the ballot box, but with a place in history as one of America's great men.
Eighty years later, America once again faced the prospect of a wartime election. Though by 1944 the war's fortunes were progressing solidly in the Allies' direction, there remained a lot of brutal fighting ahead, on two fronts.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the commander-in-chief since America's war began with the Pearl Harbor attacks, could have easily come up with an excuse to cancel the election, claiming there was "too much risk," or by manufacturing some other rationalization.
Like President Lincoln before him, President Roosevelt had too much respect for the Constitution and American democracy to try such a thing. The election occurred as scheduled/ FDR won an unprecedented fourth term, and America's standing in the world remained high, being a nation that took its own laws seriously, no matter how dire the circumstances. Partly because of this, Mr. Roosevelt, like Mr. Lincoln, is a revered figure in our national history.
Today, we have George W. Bush in the White House. While there are a few similarities between his situation and those of Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt, the scenarios are not directly comparable. President Bush committed our forces to Iraq for nebulous reasons, most of which have not held up as evidence has come to light.
And his other war is against a concept - terrorism - and not against a specific nation-state, which would imply a different strategy and approach than a conventional war against an Imperial Japan or a Nazi Germany.
Nonetheless, let us indulge President Bush and call him a "war president," a sobriquet he eagerly embraces, despite the lack of any formal war declarations by Congress. With a national election coming up this November, he faces the same choice that confronted President Lincoln in 1864 and President Roosevelt in 1944. Both of those great men risked their presidencies to uphold the traditions of our constitutional law.
So what does the Bush administration do? Does it express its reverence for our Constitution and our unbroken string of quadrennial presidential elections, dating back more than two centuries? Does it carry on the precedent set by Both Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Roosevelt and declare that no externality is too large to disrupt our democratic process?
Sadly, but not particularly surprisingly, the answer is no.
Recently the administration floated a proposal to "postpone" November's elections in the event of "terrorist threats." Given Tom Ridge's propensity to roll out a new "threat" whenever the Democrats show some life - last Wednesday's transparently cynical "warning" to head off the John Edwards coverage being only the latest instance - one might be justified in expressing skepticism about the Bush administration's motives here. Especially since the White House has been claiming we're safer than ever now that Saddam is behind bars.
While some of these terrorist threats are certainly genuine, and while we must remain vigilant, this administration's cried wolf too often to retain much credibility in the matter.
Funny how this election-postponement idea wasn't test-marketed when President Bush was riding high in the polls.
Is our democracy so fragile and delicate that we're willing to call off our elections - the foundation of what our country is all about - because of vague "threats?" Has President Bush really been that successful in instilling a culture of fear in America? (What an utter contrast with FDR, who declared that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.") Or does he detect that this might be his party's only shot at holding onto power, as an increasing number of Americans see through his administration's manipulations?
Will the Republicans wait for some Big Event, one that frightens enough of the public, and suddenly decide it's time to have the election? The potential for Machiavellian abuses of this idea is truly staggering.
A truly visionary president would go out of his way to ensure that our elections will be held on schedule, no matter what. He would issue a loud warning to those who would try to attack us that they would not succeed in disrupting our institutions. We are not a Latin American oligarchy, with sham "elections" held at the whim of military juntas.
The most savvy approaches to thwarting terror threats around Election Day would involve shoring up our homeland security around polling places, but the department's budget remains grossly under funded. Heck, the anthrax mailer has been all but forgotten.
A postponement of the election would be the ultimate victory for terrorism over America. After all, isn't that what our troops overseas are supposedly fighting for? Freedom and democracy? The right to choose those who would lead us?
Sounds like Bush might be afraid that the election will yield the "wrong" result. If Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt ever experienced that fear, they never revealed it publicly. But even if they did, they put America's best interests ahead of their own.
Given the well-warranted public outrage over this GOP trial balloon, there is still hope that President Bush will put the Constitution first as well. But it's a shame that the question even has to be asked.
Whatever the motives involved, one fact is indisputable. President Bush is no Abraham Lincoln. Nor is he a Franklin Roosevelt.
When we cease to have elections, we cease to be America.