Monday, August 02, 2004

Campaign History Watch - Eerie Historical Parallels - America's Presidential Elections of 1864 and 2004

Ned Barnett

(c) 2004

I've been reading a lot about the Civil War recently, prepping for a History Channel program on which I was a talking-head expert, as well as a behind-the-scenes "advisor," and that research has made it rather shockingly clear to me that there are some eerie parallels between the challenges (and the paths taken) by the Democratic party in 1864 and the Democratic party in 2004. This is not to imply that old saw, "those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it" (in part because it's in no way clear that the Democratic Party in 2004 is "doomed"), but it does make it clear that historical parallels can be remarkable, and fascinating.

In 1864, the Democratic Party started out by opposing President Lincoln - which was purely natural, since they were, at that time, the opposition party - but over the time between 1862 and 1864, this opposition to the President himself morphed into an opposition to the War to save the Union (and even into an opposition to Lincoln's efforts to abolish Slavery).

The extreme anti-war segment within the Democratic Party took control of the party, and of the party's 1864 Presidential convention. This group even went so far as to pass a platform that claimed the War to save the Union could not be won. This plank called for an immediate cease fire, and the speedy negotiation of a peace treaty with the Confederacy. Then, hoping to win the election in a country that was by no means as anti-war as was the Democratic Party itself, the convention's delegates nominated a former military man - General George McClellan, who had been head of the Union Army in late 1861 and early 1862. However, upon nomination, McClellan made it clear that he would NOT stop the war.

Now for the parallels. In 2002, most leading Democrats voted to support the President in a proposed invasion of Iraq, though they did not support President Bush himself, and found fault with the way he proceeded. However, since that time, a powerful faction within the Democratic Party has pushed the party from a position of opposing the President (which is only natural), to a position of also opposing the war and subsequent post-war reconstruction of Iraq. However, they have voted (as a party) to nominate former military officer John Kerry, who has repeated said that he would NOT stop America's post-war reconstruction actions in Iraq, even though he is (as McClellan did) eagerly accepting the support of anti-war Democrats.

To date, the parallels are almost eerie. However, at this juncture, we have no way of knowing if history will repeat itself or not - in spite of the parallels, there are no guarantees.

In 1864, it worked out that, just two days after the Democrat Party (in that party's convention) formally announced that the War to preserve the Union was hopeless and unwinnable, General William T. Sherman took Atlanta. A couple of weeks later, General Phil Sheridan won three battles (in the period of just one week) in the strategic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. These two events, on top of Admiral David Farragut's recent success in capturing the fortresses guarding Mobile Bay (a battle in which he uttered the immortal "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead"), made it clear that the war not only could be won, but that it WAS being won.

Our future remains just that - the future, as yet unwritten. However, with the Iraqis enjoying now sovereignty, and with Saddam Hussein on the block for his crimes - before an Iraqi court - it is at least possible that history (which has repeated itself so remarkably so far), might entirely repeat itself.

But that decision won't be left up to history - it will be up to America's voters.

And that brings up one last eerie parallel. In 1864, the rest of the world was amazed that, even during a war, not only did the United States hold an election, but the soldiers who were fighting were allowed - even encouraged - to vote. In fact, official voter registration teams from states permitting absentee ballots were given priority access to men from their states - and, for states that had no provision for absentee ballots, whole regiments of soldiers from states were furloughed home to be able to vote. And, although some have expressed concern that terror attacks might disrupt (even force the government to postpone) our elections, I am confident that in this case, history will repeat itself. No matter what terrorists might try, America will vote - for either the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate - on November 2, 2004.

In that regard, we will be exactly as we were in 1864.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.