, Newburyport, MA


February 18, 2013

A shift in presidential tense

Of all the dubious claims last year, the most deceptive went unnoticed.

The film may have awakened us. Instead, Steven Spielberg delayed the release of “Lincoln” to avoid charges of trying to influence the election.

No matter. Democratic victories across a country recoiling from Tea-publican extremism rendered that decision as moot as it was ironic.

Like many of history’s persistent illusions, it’s true on the surface: Abraham Lincoln was our first Republican president.

But not when stretched over 150 years into: “Republicans are the party of Lincoln.”

That shift in verb tense begs the question. To answer it, let’s do the time warp again:

Or let’s risk whiplash watching Republicans portrayed, according to one film review, as “a shaky coalition of radicals, centrists and conservatives, while the Democrats have a similar mix of grandstanding obstructionists and quiet realists.”

That the names need only be swapped to describe them today is beyond argument, although here, east of the Hudson, some will insist that “conservative Democrat” is a contradiction in terms.

Presidential elections, starting with 1876, offer an outline of what historians call “the ideological shift.”

New York Gov. Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, handily wins both popular and electoral votes on first count, largely due to Southern Democrats who chafe under Reconstruction.

Before certification, however, Republicans prevail on outgoing President U.S. Grant to withdraw federal troops from Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida in return for a flipped vote certified by three Democratic governors.

Presto! Ohio Gov. Rutherford Hayes rides a winning margin of one electoral vote into the White House.

Call it the first step on a century-long Republican path to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign against civil rights and Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victories throughout Dixie over Southerner Jimmy Carter—save Carter’s native Georgia.

Biggest step was Theodore Roosevelt’s bolt four years after leaving office.

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