In the summer of 1940, Hitler’s forces were attacking Europe. Paris fell. As well as Norway and Denmark. The British army had barely escaped destruction through the mass evacuation of Dunkirk, and Britain itself was doomed to collapse without significant American help—help that was opposed by a powerful isolationist movement in the United States.
In an effort to build bipartisan support to salvage a beleaguered democracy abroad, Roosevelt took the unusual step of July 19 by naming two major Republicans to important positions in his cabinet. For Secretary of War he chose Henry Stimson, who had served as Secretary of State under his predecessor Herbert Hoover. For Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt appointed Frank Knox, who ran for vice president with Alf Landon on the 1936 Republican ticket, and who attacked Franklin Roosevelt’s “crackpot ideas.”
None of that matters. For Roosevelt, the need to keep Britain out of Hitler’s hands, and to begin mobilizing America for the war he knew was to come, rendered past partisan battles irrelevant. He had crucial help on that front from the man he ran against in 1940. Wendell Wilkie, the grieving GOP candidate, was a prominent international figure—even during the campaign, and despite occasional isolationist rhetoric—providing criticism supporting extended military conscription at the time. Peace and sending destroyers to Britain in exchange for military bases. After the election, Wilkie backed another vital piece of aid to Britain – the Lend-Lease program that provides military equipment – and became the president’s envoy to London.
It was probably the most dangerous effort in bipartisanship by any president, with the exception of the possible selection of Abraham Lincoln Democrat Andrew Johnson for Vice President in 1864 (a selection that proved disastrous). It also represents a far more important outreach than the common practice of putting a few members of the opposition party in government, as former President John F. Kennedy did when he appointed C. President Richard Nixon appointed John Connally as Secretary of the Treasury and Pat Moynihan as Homeland Policy Adviser. He reflected the idea that, besides repelling Hitler, every other political consideration paled in comparison. (This idea was summed up by Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 when he explained that “Doctor New Deal” had effectively been replaced by “Doctor Win the War.”)
What is the significance of today? Since the last election, and especially since determined efforts by Republicans to reshape the electoral field for the next election, we have been told that the free exercise of suffrage is in jeopardy—unless there are statewide attempts to restrict the franchise. Control over vote counting ceases, and we may literally not have the “republican form of government” guaranteed by the constitution.
If this is true – and there is ample evidence of this – then the various scenarios of the “bipartisan card” can be seen as a cry for help, a call for some kind of bold “national unity” from the president, and opponents summoning him. side to protect our endangered political process.
Putting aside the hottest speculation (is anyone seriously suggesting that the president remove the first black female vice president without disastrous results within his party?), what should have been the response of the president and his party over the past year, and what should go forward?
The combination of Trump’s efforts to control vote counting and non-existent Democratic margins in the House and Senate suggested two major efforts. First, communication with the “realist” faction of the Republican Party: Whatever our divisions over policies and programmes, we will work together to protect the political process from efforts to undermine it. And second, to his fellow Democrats in Biden: Our economic and social agenda is critical, but we must first strengthen American democracy.
We could have witnessed these remarkable efforts – on Earth Two. Look more seriously, and you can see why this attempt was doomed to fail. The polarization that has gripped our politics is too great. The Republican Party is the main (though not the only) case study.
Even in the early hours after the January 6 riots, as broken glass and defiled halls were being cleaned, a large majority of House Republicans were voting to block Biden’s electoral victory. The disgust with the behavior of former President Donald Trump, expressed even by invertebrate minority leader Kevin McCarthy, was a half-life for several days. Barely 5% of House Republicans voted to impeach Trump, and a large majority of the party jumped to believe Biden stole the presidency and is still holding on to him. Trump and his allies are systematically purging the few Republicans who have stood up to him.
When Wendell Wilkie signed on to help Roosevelt, he was shunned by his party’s isolationist wing and was not even allowed to speak at the 1944 Republican convention. If any Republican had sought to join a Biden-led national unity government, the retaliation would have been much greater. (Remember what happened when Obama wanted Republican Senator Judd Gregg to serve as Secretary of Commerce; even that appointment proved a bridge too far for Gregg.) Not a single Republican senator supported the Democrats’ broad election reform proposal.
For all but a handful of Republicans, any political alliance with Biden was suicidal, no matter how much they agreed that Trump and his minions were actively seeking to undermine the democratic experiment. Even The View can’t find a Republican who rejects Trump’s big lie while maintaining his credibility with the GOP. (Will any of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump last year engage in some sort of unity effort? Don’t bet on that.)
Now look across the aisle. As Biden himself triumphed in the 2020 primary with a bipartisan message of unity, how prepared is his party to embrace a national unity administration? Suppose Biden initially said that fighting the threat of free and fair elections should be the overriding focus of his administration, that “Dr. Build Back Better” should have taken the back seat of “Dr. Save the Republic?
The screams of anger would have overcome: We have complete control of Congress. We are likely to lose at least one home in 2022; Now or ever for these programs – all of them.
What is true of questions of domestic politics will be a multiplier of contentious social issues. Before indulging in the bipartisan ticket idea, ask yourself how many Democrats you know would support a ticket where the vice president has been against abortion rights, supporting open-carrying gun laws or voting for the assertions of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Connie Barrett.
There are greater barriers to some kind of “national unity” effort. For now, Republicans in states across the country are passionately working to make voting more difficult, ensuring that their supporters are accountable for the mechanism for counting those votes, while their Republican allies in the Senate are unanimously opposed to efforts to put federal laws into practice. To protect this vote.
In response, Biden gave a speech this week that compared these Republicans to Paul Connor and George Wallace, out of racial disgrace, suggesting something other than trying to find common ground. At the same time, the Jan. 6 committee may issue subpoenas and criminal contempt citations against fellow House members while investigating efforts to bar Biden from the White House and possible links between some of those members and the Capitol riots.
And even among those Republicans who reject Trump as their future, there is a clear divide between which political path they should take: supporting “non-Trump” Republicans or helping Democrats retain political power.
Yes, as Tom Friedman pointed out in his recent “Biden-Cheney” column, widely disparate groups in Israel have managed to put together a coalition government, united by their shared determination to keep Benjamin Netanyahu out of power. In that political system, defined by ever-changing alliances, in which no faction is close to forming a majority on its own, this type of alliance is possible. Here, with only two parties to choose from, it’s more in the realm of fantasy.
I enjoy speculative political scenarios as much as I do the next person; In fact, I’ve written quite a few of them. But when it comes to the search for a realistic answer to what threatens our electoral system, the idea of a bipartisan political alliance in the current political environment does not pass the test of plausibility. Though come to think of it, a Lieberman-Murkovsky ticket…