Whatever Pelosi’s speculative tactical scenario, her account of Lincoln’s ideas about public opinion is badly mistaken. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail,” Lincoln said. “Without it, nothing can succeed.” Critically, however, Pelosi sees public opinion as something to follow. Lincoln saw it as something to shape.
Lincoln urgently believed that counting on dangerous demagogues to disgrace themselves was a disastrous strategy that would only permit them to further undermine democratic principles in the interests of their own power. Demagogues, Lincoln understood, feast on political passivity and drift. They could be halted, he declared, only by entering the conflict to “educate and mold public opinion.”
Lincoln wrote the line that Pelosi cites in a note to himself on the day of the first of his famous debates with Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. He did not consider public opinion an abstract, vague or distant force that he hoped might somehow be on his side. He believed he was in a ferocious battle for public opinion against foes who were misleading it with lies and invective. Douglas, he wrote, intimidated his own party just as he tried to bully the public at large. “It is a party necessity with them to say they agree with him; and there is danger they will repeat the saying till they really come to believe it. Others dread, and shrink from his denunciations, his sarcasms, and his ingenious misrepresentations.”
Unless challenged directly, the harangues of Douglas and his supporters would lead public opinion to favor slavery or, worse, be indifferent to it. Depending on the public alone to resist the harangues would conclude with a nightmare scenario: “And then, the negro being doomed, and damned, and forgotten, to everlasting bondage, is the white man quite certain that the tyrant demon will not turn upon him too?”
Lincoln remained consistent on the need to call out the traducers and the folly of waiting for their self-destruction. In 1859, he warned against “the miners and sappers” of public opinion, “this gradual and steady debauching of public opinion,” seeking to extend slavery. “I ask attention to the fact that in a pre-eminent degree these popular sovereigns are at this work; blowing out the moral lights around us; teaching that the negro is no longer a man but a brute; that the Declaration has nothing to do with him.”
Pelosi’s theory, by contrast, has been that the way to save her majority is to forestall impeachment through delay, to hold back the overwhelming numbers that would give it momentum and to let Trump engage in “self-impeachment.” The “struggle” Lincoln described is avoided.
It is a theory of studied passivity.
During the months that Pelosi has been misconstruing Lincoln’s line, Trump’s grandiose sense of impunity has inflated and his recklessness increased. After special counsel Robert S. Mueller III released his report on the investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and the Democrats flailed in holding the president to account for obstructing that investigation, Trump concluded he could continue to operate unrestricted by law. Perhaps he felt liberated to try to coerce the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into undermining the presidential candidacy of former vice president Joe Biden by enlisting Zelensky in a smear campaign.
The exposure of Trump’s latest attempt to solicit foreign interference in a presidential election (“Russia, if you’re listening”) now presents Pelosi with a quandary about her theory of impeachment — and, incidentally, her bowdlerized version of Lincoln. The Great Emancipator dismissed the prestigious Gen. George McClellan with the remark, “He has got the slows.” He promoted Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and protected him from his critics with the comment, “I can’t spare this man. He fights!” The slows, Lincoln knew, would never move “public sentiment.” Pelosi up to now has summoned the spirit of the nearly disastrous and reactive passivity of McClellan and suppressed her inner Grant.