For most of the nation, the new movie Lincoln is a gripping history lesson. For pundits and politicians, it's a new talking point in the fiscal cliffhanger.
Lincoln, which depicts the 16th president's efforts to pass the constitutional amendment ending slavery, has provided a handy frame for discussions about negotiations on the "fiscal cliff," the term for severe spending cuts and tax increases that will go into effect at year's end in the absence of an agreed-upon plan to cut the federal budget deficit.
Underlining the stakes in the budget negotiations on Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., appearing on MSNBC, cited the movie and Lincoln's explanation of the Civil War: "We want to prove that democracy is not chaos." Durbin said that message is again applicable. "That's what we have to prove, in this generation ... with the challenge of our time."
The movie tells the story of President Lincoln's work to get the 13th Amendment to end slavery through Congress in the months after his re-election in 1864. Lame-duck congressmen are key to his success. That's a situation with considerable appeal in Washington now, where re-elected President Obama, also from Illinois, and a lame-duck Congress must work out legislation that seems to pit principle -- Republicans' refusal to raise taxes and Democrats fealty to entitlement programs -- against progress on a deal.
Lincoln was a topic on three Sunday chat shows and in a slew of political columns.
"The timing and watching how politics played out -- arms were twisted, the greater good was served -- the whole storyline is very parallel to what's going on now," says Betsy Fischer Martin, executive producer of Meet the Press, which devoted a segment Sunday to a discussion of the movie.
Lincoln provides "a great lesson," Republican strategist Matthew Dowd said on Meet the Press. "Progress is never made by pure means."
In The Washington Post, columnist Ruth Marcus recommended that Obama show the movie daily at 4p.m. with popcorn. Syndicated columnist David Brooks said the movie portrayed politics accurately: "You can do more good in politics than in any other sphere ... only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others."
For Bloomberg News, Al Hunt wrote that the fiscal cliff negotiations "seem trivial" compared with ending slavery, but "achieving success requires the same ingredients: bargaining, bartering, bluffing and cutting a few dubious deals."
It could be seen as alarming that a movie is needed to remind Washington that legislation requires both leadership and compromise.
"It tells you something about the condition of Washington that they need a movie to tell them how to do what they're supposed to be doing," longtime political correspondent Jeff Greenfield says.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book Team of Rivals is the basis for the film, noted that it is not just a line or the title -- like The Perfect Storm -- but "it's the whole message of the movie that's become part of the conversation." And the message is: "Somehow as confusing and chaotic as democracy is, it can be made to work if there is will on both sides and there is leadership."
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