Losing Strategy? Socialism's Cost; Attribution Errors

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Good morning, it’s Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. In one of his famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln offered a brief description of the most prevalent type of what we’d now call “fake news” -- the counterfeit quotation attributed to a politician by his opponents. This bane of political discourse isn’t new to our time, in other words. It wasn’t new in 1858.

“What is a forgery? It is the bringing forward something in writing or in print purporting to be of certain effect when it is altogether untrue,” Lincoln told the audience in Charleston, Ill., 161 years ago today. “If you come forward with a letter purporting to be written by me which I never wrote, there is forgery.”

As presidential scholars and presidents themselves know, when it comes to White House history, forgeries come in many forms. Some are innocuous enough, such as the signs on rustic inns boasting “George Washington slept here” -- even if the establishment asserting this claim wasn’t built until the 19th century. My favorite in this category is National Public Radio’s April Fools’ Day prank in which a Richard Nixon impersonator announced his 1992 presidential campaign.

“I never did anything wrong,” intoned the ersatz Nixon, “and I won’t do it again.”

Not all spoofs are harmless, however, as we’ll see a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

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Just Admit It, Democrats: You Want to Lose Next Year.  Reed Galen argues that the party is allowing fringe elements to determine its fate, preferring purity over victory.

Money from Nothing: Socialism for Free. Richard Porter offers a primer on the monetary theory behind Democratic presidential candidates’ spending promises.

Media’s LGBTQ Focus Has Dwindled Since Trump’s Election. Kalev Leetaru spotlights the numbers.

Saudi Oil Attacks Underscore Need for U.S. Energy Dominance. Kelly Sadler writes that the loss of global oil output should offer a lesson to 2020 Democratic presidential candidates determined to ban U.S. fossil-fuel production.

Constitution Day Is Also About State-Level Protections. Jeffrey Sutton applauds the second -- and often overlooked -- set of safeguards that our form of government provides for our rights.

Dollar Devaluation Will Weaken Economy. In RealClearMarkets, Daniel Pearson warns that a bill under consideration in Congress will be counterproductive if approved and signed into law.

Threat of Russia’s Hypersonic Nukes. In RealClearDefense, Bishop Garrison and Preston Lann sound the alarm over the weapons system now being developed.

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Attributing dubious quotes, actions, or attitudes to popular presidents to serve partisan purposes is as American as apple pie. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. And although no one relishes the role of being a scold, it’s the job of honest journalists to call out the perpetrators.

I understand that it comforts religiously devout conservatives to be told that George Washington himself said, “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.” Yet it’s my job to let you know that the Father of Our Country said no such thing.

Likewise, National Rifle Association supporters are heartened by another supposed George Washington quote: “A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.” Sorry, Washington never said that, either.

For their part, progressives love to bolster their arguments about reining in capitalism by invoking Lincoln’s warning that corporations are “more despotic than monarchy.” That purported Lincoln quote continues: “As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign…until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands.”

In 1999, while publicly contemplating entering elective politics, actor Warren Beatty used these lines in a speech to liberal Democrats. Many other liberals have used them as well. There are a couple of problems here. For one thing, the words sound nothing like Lincoln. Also, this phony quotation has been debunked, decade after decade, as far back as the 1890s. Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay denounced it as a “bold, unblushing forgery.”

Oddly, Al Gore reprises the fake Lincoln lines in the recently updated paperback version of his book “The Assault on Reason.” Why is that odd? Because Gore’s book takes aim at those who contribute to voter cynicism by spreading misinformation.

Some modern journalists, including Andrew Ferguson, did their duty and pointed out that the “corporations have been enthroned” sentiment is a sham, at least when it comes to Lincoln. Many other journalists, however, merely repeated the spurious quote uncritically.

The Gore example underscores another barrier to getting it right. It’s often presidents and vice presidents who peddle phony Lincoln quotes. Ronald Reagan liked to attribute questionable conservative sentiments to Honest Abe by quoting Lincoln as saying, “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.”

This is not Lincoln. Nor is this line, passed off to Democratic members of Congress by President Obama as they prepared to vote on the Affordable Care Act: “I am not bound to win, but I'm bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.”

Obama may have fooled his former Capitol Hill comrades with this awkward prose (and Lincoln was never awkward), but he didn’t fool me. You see, I remember Ronald Reagan’s penchant for the apocryphal anecdote, and I covered Bill Clinton for eight years.

Come to think of it, I was there in 1994 when Clinton said this: “The greatest Republican president -- some of us think the greatest president we ever had -- Mr. Lincoln, once said that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.”

As historian Jack Pitney noted to NPR, it’s a nice line, but it ain’t Lincoln. 

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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