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Needed: A Unity Campaign

Dan Caldwell, distinguished professor of political science, and university professor Ed Larson propose a "unity campaign" to overcome "our nation's lethal partisan divide."

January 23, 2020

When recently asked if he would consider picking a Republican as his vice president, Joe Biden said yes, but he could not think of any.  We can't either, but we can think of many Republicans who could ably serve in a Biden cabinet and announcing them now would demonstrate his commitment to working across the aisle and healing our nation's lethal partisan divide.

Polls indicate that the United States consists of two countries: one deep blue and the other bright red, with little evidence of movement toward a "purple" middle ground. In this deeply polarized environment, what could be done to bring our country together?

Only a radical break from the destructive polarization of recent years. We propose a "unity campaign" led by Joe Biden, a unifying vice presidential candidate, and a cabinet composed of a diverse array of moderate Democrats, progressive Democrats, and centrist Republicans, all committed of working in a bipartisan fashion for the public interest.

The American electorate historically displays a bell-shaped curve with Democrats to the left and Republicans to the right. Successful presidential candidates traditionally broadened their support by appealing to the center. But scholars like Emory University Professor Alan Abramowitz have demonstrated that the center in American politics has diminished as the electorate becomes more polarized. If this is the case, then why would a unity campaign led by Biden work?

The answer is that President Trump has moved the GOP so far toward authoritarianism through ethno-nationalist appeals and a disregard of democratic norms and institutions that moderate Republicans and self-avowed “independents” (but who typically vote Republican) might join a unity-based campaign led by someone like Biden, who has a proved track record of working across party lines.

Biden could strengthen his prospects of capturing the Democratic Party nomination and then winning a decisive (potentially realigning) victory in the general election by embracing a unity campaign. What might such a campaign look like?

To start, Biden might tap Amy Klobuchar as his running mate to provide gender and demographic balance to the Democratic ticket. He might pick up support from progressives by promising to appoint Elizabeth Warren as Attorney General, Julian Castro as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Jay Inslee as head of the EPA. Moderates would be pleased with cabinet posts for Pete Buttigieg (Department of Defense), Cory Booker (Health and Human Services) and Michael Bennet (Homeland Security). Finally, a "unity Cabinet" would also include moderate Republicans such as Bob Corker as secretary of state, Lamar Alexander as secretary of education, John Kasich as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and with Dan Coats back as Director of Intelligence.

What are the advantages of a unity campaign?

First, a unity campaign would bridge the increasing political gap in American society., a gap that may increase with impeachment proceedings. If a radical progressive wins the Democratic nomination, voters may stick with Trump to another four years rather than risk an economic downturn. If moderate Republicans feel that they are represented in a unity cabinet, they may feel freed to reject Trump’s bullying racism and catastrophic foreign policy.

Second, respect for facts and compromise is the hallmark of American democracy. Trump has shown his disdain for both. If Biden put together a bi-partisan team of respected leaders, voters would have more confidence that data, analysis, and science would drive decision making. A unity cabinet would show support for fact-based policies and compromise over the impulses and gut-reactions of an authoritarian leader.

Third, a cabinet of ethical, proven leaders would mark a return to decency in government. One of the long-term costs of having Trump as president is the cheapening of the office due to endless scandals, lies, poor appointments, outside business deals, and outrageous tweets. 

Fourth, America needs leaders with experience in office. President Obama had limited executive expertise, and although Trump ran his family businesses, he had no background in government. The members of a unity campaign should be chosen for their proven track-record in government without regard of party affiliation.

Finally, a unity campaign gives patriots, those who place the good of the country over the party, an opportunity to step up and serve when the United States faces so many dire crises related to climate change, opioid addiction, gun violence, racism, and inequality.

Of course, a unity campaign would cause heartburn for many. Such an approach requires several hopefuls to delay or forgo their presidential aspirations. But it could avert a circular firing squad in which the various Democratic candidates mortally wound the party’s chances for victory. For progressives, it means giving up the prize of having a standard bearer with their desired credentials. Some Republican leaders would have to break publicly with Trump, and face his Twitter wrath.

We’ve seen this before in times of existential crisis. Faced with a Civil War, Lincoln assembled a team of rivals.  FDR brought GOP stalwart Henry L. Stimson back into the cabinet as Secretary of War during World War II, much as Churchill assembled a unity war cabinet in Britain. These too are no ordinary times. Trump and climate changes pose existential threats to governance. Once again, a unity campaign is needed.

Dan Caldwell is distinguished professor of political science at Pepperdine University and the coauthor with Robert E. Williams, Jr. of Seeking Security in an Insecure World.  Pulitzer Prize winning historian Ed Larson is University Professor at Pepperdine University and author of the forthcoming Franklin and Washington, The Founding Partnership.

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