In reading a passage in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s prize-winning history, Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln’s political genius, I couldn’t help see a situation that Lincoln faced as a state legislator that is similar to one created by Gov. Jerry Brown. Unfortunately, this connection revolves around one of Lincoln’s setbacks, not one of his triumphs.
Similar to Brown’s quest for starting the High Speed Rail project while California is in deficit, Lincoln championed “internal improvements” at a time of fiscal upheaval. Internal improvements are what we today call infrastructure: roads, harbors, rivers and railways. Goodwin relates that Lincoln told a friend that he wanted to be the “DeWitt Clinton of Illinois,” the New York governor who pushed through the Eire Canal project.
Goodwin writes about Lincoln’s mission:
Lincoln’s dreams of becoming the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois collapsed when a sustained recession hit the state in 1837. Public sentiment turned against the costly and still unfinished internal improvement system. For months, Lincoln fervently defended the system against the rising tide of criticism … he refused to give ground, abiding by his father’s old maxim: “If you make a bad bargain, hug it the tighter.” His unwillingness to abandon the policies he had championed became self-destructive stubbornness. By 1840, the fourth year of recession, the mood in the legislature was set against continuing the projects. With funds no longer forthcoming, the improvements system collapsed.
Can you see the similarities? Public sentiment turned against the system…defending the system against rising criticism…unwillingness to abandon the policies.
Brown’s stubborn pursuit of the High Speed Rail fits easily into the paragraph’s description of Lincoln’s stance. With no expectation for adequate funds on the horizon, initial investment by taxpayers could be wasted.
I don’t fault the governor for thinking big. And, I confess, a time or two I have followed the Lincoln maxim of hugging a bad bargain all the tighter. However, we have to be realistic. California is not in good fiscal shape. High Speed Rail is attached to a poor business plan. Struggling to escape a recession that makes funding doubtful is not the time to pursue this project. There are greater needs for California tax dollars.
As history shows even the noblest of plans have been undercut by poor economies.
The Governor can gain solace, however, that Lincoln rebounded pretty well from his stubborn and unsuccessful undertaking.