Our Man on Cuomo's Radical Lincoln

Trying to wedge the lives and thoughts of the past's great leaders into the pigeon holes of current affairs is rough going; the past is either subsumed by the concerns of the present or painted as so distinct that it scarcely relates to present concerns. Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York and one of the great orators and polemicists of our day, tries with some success to balance these concerns in his forthcoming "Why Lincoln Matters." At times, most notably in the concluding chapter where Cuomo tries his hand as Lincoln speechwriter, the book comes off rather like a precocious parochial school child's class assignment.

But for the most part the former governor manages to be tendentious while avoiding the trap of caustic polemics. The book, originally due out some months ago, has presumably been delayed to allow the governor time to draw a comparison between Abraham Lincoln and his GOP contemporary, George W. Bush, a comparison distinctly unflattering to our present, tongue-tied Commander-In-Chief.

To his credit, Cuomo eschews ad hominum attacks, though his distaste for Bush is hardly camouflaged. Much of the book is in fact Cuomo, evidently presenting himself as Lincoln's surrogate, making the case for a more progressive tax code. Cuomo suggests deferring the 40% of the current two and a half trillion dollars in tax cuts aimed at the top 1% of earners, thus freeing one trillion for government use. Cuomo adds that half of those monies should be aimed toward paying down the already historic $520 bn. deficit forecast for this fiscal year. The remaining $500 bn. would be put toward tax cuts for middle and lower class citizens and aiding state governments struggling under debt burdens wrought by federal spending shortfalls on social programs and infrastructure and education.

Lincoln, Cuomo reminds us, helped develop a progressive income tax code, intended, as he reminded Congress in an 1861 address concerning the growing insurgency in the Confederate states, to allow government to "elevate the condition of men -- to lift artificial weights from all shoulders -- to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all -- to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life." Lincoln also eschewed the strictly market driven approach shared by many of his contemporaries concerning the establishment of internal improvements.

Taking as his guiding principle his belief that government "is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves -- in their separate and individual capacities" he pushed for significant transportation projects, notably the at-the-time remarkable sum of $10 million allocated in the Internal Improvements Act of 1837.

Education for which Lincoln did his part by providing land grants for what were to become affordable state colleges, will be key if the "race to the bottom," particularly concerning labor outsourcing so decried by anti-globalization advocates is to be avoided. Unlike most of his Democratic colleges still in public life who loudly proclaim a return to neo-protectionism, Cuomo sees outsourcing as a further step in our economy's attempts to gain greater productivity. To indicate the value of greater productivity Berkeley economist Brad Delong contests that if a rate of three percent productivity growth can be maintained annually in 25 years the nation's average incomes will double. Globalization also holds promise for depressed economies and the development of civil society needed for market economies to flourish is in keeping with Lincoln's political evangelization and belief in democratic universalism. Such a belief added support for his decision not to let the Confederate states break from the Union, dooming his own nation but would likely extinguish the ideals which America was acting custodian.

Cuomo's work asks us to raise the bar for our leaders, to demand that those who seek to occupy the highest offices of the land be as brilliant and articulate as we need them to be. These qualities are sorely lacking in the present administration and, honestly, not likely to be found in great abundance in its possible replacement, but it doesn't mean that we can't keep looking or at very least take from Lincoln the foundations of our political faith.

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