Is it possible for political parties to own or disown presidents? They certainly try to paper over some of their less-than-ideal connections. There aren't many Republicans holding events honoring Warren Harding. Nor are there Democrats calling for theirs to become the party of Grover Cleveland. That said, there is an ongoing debate about the need to lay claim to or cut ties with more prominent figures like Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln.
For decades, Democrats held Jefferson-Jackson dinners in honor of the men they credited with the founding of their party. As the perception of both presidents shifted due to their connections to slavery and Native American removal, Democrats have argued that these dinners should be renamed after more acceptable members of the party. And as Democrats back away, a number of Republicans, primarily President Trump, have eagerly grabbed on to Jackson in the hopes of co-opting his populist legacy.
Writing in Politico, National Review editor Rich Lowry implores Republicans to make their connection to Lincoln stronger rather than becoming the party of Jackson. He writes, "Lincoln is a more suitable Republican hero...an unsurpassed exemplar of the GOP's core values of personal responsibility and striving." While this is undoubtedly true of Lincoln, he is also connected with values and policy positions that would leave him to the left of current Republican ideology. Embracing Lincoln means embracing a strong federal government over a limited government that defers to the states. It means embracing the use of federal income taxes to pay for that increased federal power. It means embracing the idea of equal voting rights pushed on the states at the federal level. In other words, I would argue that Lincoln is far more complicated and politically problematic a figure than Lowry's claim suggests.
Which makes me wonder about our ability to align presidents outside the modern era with our current political moment. Especially when we have a hard time agreeing on where are parties are on the spectrum in any specific way. Lowry might say that I have his party all wrong. And I very well might. But that's why I resist these "party of" constructions. Since Jackson, Jefferson, and Lincoln were complicated men who defy simple characterizations, I'd rather we celebrate their admirable qualities while acknowledging where they come up short. I'd rather Democrats and Republicans look to Lincoln or any other president and say they are the party of the values these men fought for rather than co-opting the man in whole. We shouldn't treat these men as suits of clothing to be put on or taken off with whatever shift happens to take place in the political climate. If we do so, we are doing a real disservice to our national history and the lessons we must learn from our past.