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What Mario Cuomo Thinks Lincoln Would Do

Abraham Lincoln never would condone President George W. Bush's arrogant and unilateral foreign policy, as well as his misguided, exclusionary and destructive domestic policy, according to the former governor of New York State. Bush must reverse his current course and instead follow in Lincoln's footsteps; only then will America re-discover its inherent greatness, he argues.

"Lincoln never would have gone to war in Iraq under these circumstances," said Democrat Mario Cuomo. "He would have fought the war in Afghanistan" rather than diverting the Afghan resources into Iraq. He would have urged President Bush to continue, at least for a while longer, the diplomacy needed to create a coalition with the United Nations to convince Saddam to remove himself from power. And he would never agree with a domestic tax cut that benefits only the top 2 percent of Americans.

Cuomo spoke at a June 9 event at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. to promote his new book, Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever.

The book seeks to apply the lessons of Lincoln's life and political philosophies to issues currently faced by America, and, more specifically, the Bush administration. The predominant themes focus on America's policies toward the wars on terror and in Iraq, and also tackle such issues as civil liberties, the role of government, religion, race, equal opportunity and global interdependence.

"I am not a Lincoln scholar; I am not a Lincoln historian, but I learned a lot from so much reading about Lincoln," said Cuomo, who previously co-edited the book Lincoln on Democracy. All politicians defer to Lincoln and both major political parties claim him as their own, Cuomo said. Why? Because Lincoln is not just a revered relic, but is relevant.

Nowhere is this more prominent than during the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the three major New York politicians - Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani - eschewed personal comments and instead all quoted Lincoln. It was this event that first placed the idea in Cuomo's head to write his book, the idea that Lincoln has something to teach America about democracy and liberty, and that now was a time desperate for such advice.

This reverence for Lincoln shows us that what America currently needs is an "overarching grand concept," a vision "worthy of the world's greatest nation," and a president who will give it to us, Cuomo said. Such a vision is lacking in the George W. Bush administration, he contends.

"We haven't got people with big ideas anymore," Cuomo said. That is why everyone now is praising Ronald Reagan, he had big ideas. Reagan was the "antidote to malaise" that formed in the 1970s. "That's what people are so desperate for."

Domestically, Bush has forgotten average people, especially with his tax cuts for the wealthy, Cuomo contends. Lincoln would tell Bush that his tax cuts are wrong, that there is a better way to use a surplus than give it to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, Cuomo said. Instead, Bush should use that money to reduce the deficit, create economic stimulus; invest in training, education and health care; invest in infrastructure, and invest in state and local governments in the form of short-term revenue sharing.

"Lincoln had an aggressive sense of government," Cuomo said. He worked for money for education, for land grants, for roads and other internal improvements. He also felt that labor was superior to capital, and the most important part of society and the society's economy was the individual worker, not the richest 2 percent.

Cuomo insists he is not advancing a welfare state, just as Lincoln, a self-educated and self-made man, would not. The former New York governor called himself a "progressive pragmatist," and said he believes strongly in a philosophy that Lincoln wrote in 1854: "The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves."

Lincoln would tell Bush that government is not the problem, as Reagan believed, but that it is the solution. As Cuomo states in his book, Lincoln believed that government offered possibility, protection, and advancement, and, at its best, would encourage rather than discourage both personal initiative and contributions to the greater community.

Yet nowhere are the Bush administration's shortcomings on leadership more prevalent than in the war on terror, Cuomo said, specifically citing Bush's policy of preemption and his arrogant, unjustified and unilateral decision to invade Iraq.

Cuomo says Lincoln would have abhorred Bush's preemption policy as one "leading to despotism." In his book, he cites part of an 1848 letter Lincoln wrote while he was in Congress opposing the Mexican War to illustrate Lincoln's feeling on such a policy:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose - and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, "I see no probability of the British invading us" but he will say to you "be silent; I see it, if you don't."

Invading Afghanistan was correct and proper after Sept. 11, but the irresponsible Iraq invasion slyly "caught the slipstream" behind Afghanistan in the war on terror.

"I'm not saying that President Bush lied to America, but I think he was lied to by his advisors," Cuomo said.

Now, America is mired in Iraq, and it is "unrealistic and unfair" to expect us to create democracy there in the foreseeable future, Cuomo said. "If you notice, the Bush administration is no longer saying there will be democracy in Iraq, now they are saying it will be a 'stable government,'" he said.

Yet, even while the Bush administration's plans for Iraq's future remain insecure, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, should wait until after the party convention before really engaging Bush, Cuomo said.

"Right now everyone is watching Bush, not you," Cuomo said when asked what advice he would offer to Kerry. "You're not the game now. It's Bush versus Bush and Bush is losing."

Yet, Kerry will not win the election just because Bush is losing it. People will not remove a president in the middle of a war without sufficient reason. Kerry must convince the country that he would make a better commander-in-chief.

"You must let them feel you," Cuomo advised. "One reason Reagan was so successful was because everybody felt him. You should tell the truth about why you oppose Iraq and about why you opposed Vietnam. You returned from Vietnam sickened and disillusioned by the death and you knew you had to oppose it."

Cuomo said Kerry must overcome his natural reticence. He needs to get angry or shed a tear during the debates, to show himself as real. No one can write that speech for Kerry, Cuomo said, he's got to say it himself in his own words. It must be honest. That's the only way to convince the people.