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Reviews |  When a national unity government really worked – and why it can’t happen now

In the summer of 1940, Hitler’s forces were rampaging across Europe. Paris had fallen; Norway and Denmark too. The British army had barely escaped destruction with a mass evacuation from Dunkirk, and Britain itself was doomed to collapse without significant American aid – aid opposed by a powerful isolationist movement in the United States. United States.

In an effort to build bipartisan support to save a beleaguered democracy abroad, Roosevelt took the extraordinary step on July 19 of appointing two key Republicans to important positions in his cabinet. For Secretary of War, he chose Henry Stimson, who had been Secretary of State under his predecessor Herbert Hoover. As Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt appointed Frank Knox, who had run for vice president with Alf Landon on the 1936 GOP ticket, and who had attacked FDR’s “crazy ideas.”

None of that mattered. For Roosevelt, the need to keep Britain out of Hitler’s hands and start mobilizing America for the war he knew was coming made past partisan battles irrelevant. And he got crucial help on that front from the man who ran against him in 1940. Wendell Willkie, the Republican Party’s dark horse candidate, was an avowed internationalist who – even during the campaign, and despite occasional isolationist rhetoric – provided critics with support for a peacetime extension of the project and for sending destroyers to Britain in exchange for military bases. After the election Willkie backed another vital aid package for Britain – the Lend-Lease program providing military equipment – ​​and became the President’s envoy to London.

It was probably the most serious effort at bipartisanship by a president, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln choosing Democrat Andrew Johnson as his 1864 running mate (a choice that turned out to be disastrous) . It also represented a far greater reach 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. Douglas Dillon and Robert McNamara in key Cabinet positions, or when former President Richard Nixon appointed John Connally as Treasury Secretary and Pat Moynihan as domestic policy adviser. This reflected the idea that, beside fending off Hitler, all other political considerations paled in comparison. (This idea was summed up by FDR in 1943 when he explained that “Dr. New Deal” had effectively been replaced by “Dr. Win the War.”)

What is the relevance for today? Since the last election, and especially since the determined effort by Republicans to reshape the electoral terrain for the next ones, we are told that the free exercise of the ballot is in jeopardy – unless attempts at the state level are restrict the right to vote and take control of vote counting are stopped, we literally could not have that constitutionally guaranteed “republican form of government.”

If this is true – and there is plenty of evidence that it is – then the varied ‘bipartisan ticket’ scenarios can be seen as a cry for help, a call for some kind of bold ‘national unity’ from the president, summoning adversaries to his side. aside to protect our endangered political process.

If we set aside the most feverish speculation (Is anyone seriously suggesting that the president might impeach the first black female vice president without catastrophic results within his own party?), then what should have been the answer? of the president and his party over the past year, and what should it be in the future?

The combination of Trump’s efforts to gain control of vote counting and nearly non-existent Democratic margins in both houses of Congress would have suggested two key efforts. First, awareness of the “reality-based” faction of the Republican Party: Regardless of our divisions on policies and programs, we will work together to protect the political process from efforts to undermine it. And, second, to Biden’s fellow Democrats: Our economic and social program is essential, but first we must consolidate American democracy.

These efforts would have been fascinating to watch – on Earth Two. Look a little closer, and you will understand why this attempt would have been doomed. The polarization that has gripped our politics is far too great. And the Republican Party is the main (but not the only) case study.

Even in the early hours after the Jan. 6 riot, as shattered glass and desecrated halls were cleared, a significant majority in the House Republican caucus voted to block certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory. Revulsion at former President Donald Trump’s conduct, voiced even by spineless minority leader Kevin McCarthy, has had a half-life of days. Barely 5% of House Republicans voted to impeach Trump, and a large majority of the party surged and still clings to the belief that Biden stole the presidency. Trump and his allies are systematically purging the few Republicans who stood up to him.

When Wendell Willkie signed on to help Roosevelt, he was rejected by his party’s isolationist wing and not even allowed to speak at the 1944 GOP convention. If a Republican sought to join a government of national unity led by Biden, the reprisals would have been much greater. (Remember what happened when Obama wanted Republican Senator Judd Gregg to be his Secretary of Commerce; even that assignment proved a bridge too far for Gregg to cross.) Not a single Republican Senator endorsed the Democrats’ sweeping electoral reform proposal.

For all but a handful of Republicans, any political alliance with Biden would have been suicidal, no matter how much they agreed that Trump and his cohorts were actively seeking to undermine the democratic experiment. Even The View can’t find a Republican who has dismissed Trump’s big lie while maintaining his credibility with the GOP. (Would any of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump last year enter into some kind of unity effort? Don’t bet on it.)

Now look across the aisle. While Biden himself triumphed in the 2020 primaries with a message of bipartisanship and unity, how willing would his party have been to embrace a national unity administration? Suppose Biden said at the outset that addressing the threat to free and fair elections should be his administration’s overarching goal, that “Dr. Build Back Better” must have taken precedence over “Dr. Save the Republic.” ?

The cries of indignation would have been overwhelming: We have full control of Congress; we will probably lose at least one house in 2022; it’s now or never for these programs — all of them.

And what is true of domestic political issues would have been doubly true of controversial social issues. Before you indulge in the idea of ​​a bipartisan ticket, ask yourself how many Democrats you know who would support a ticket where the vice president was against abortion rights, supported gun laws, or voted for the confirmations of judges Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

There are even greater obstacles to some sort of “national unity” effort. Right now, state Republicans across the country are enthusiastically complicating the vote and ensuring their supporters are in charge of the mechanism for counting those votes, while their GOP allies in the Senate are unanimously opposed. efforts to implement federal laws. to save this vote.

In response, Biden gave a speech this week comparing those Republicans to Bull Connor and George Wallace of segregationist infamy, suggesting more than an effort to find common ground. Meanwhile, the Jan. 6 committee could issue subpoenas and criminal contempt citations against fellow House members as they investigate efforts to block Biden from the White House and possible ties between some of these members and the Capitol Riot.

And even among Republicans who reject Trump as their future, there’s a sharp divide between which political path they should take: supporting “non-Trumpy” Republicans or helping Democrats retain political power.

Yes, as Tom Friedman noted in his recent “Biden-Cheney” column, widely disparate groups in Israel managed to form a coalition government, united by their common determination to keep Benjamin Netanyahu out of power. In this political system, defined by ever-changing alliances, where no single faction is close to forming a majority on its own, this type of coalition is possible. Here, with only two evenings to choose from, it’s more in the realm of fantasy.

I enjoy speculative political scenarios as much as anyone; in fact, I even wrote a few. But when it comes to seeking a concrete answer to what threatens our electoral system, the idea of ​​a bipartisan political coalition in the current political environment simply does not pass the test of plausibility. Though I think about it, a Lieberman-Murkowski ticket…

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