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Time for a Bipartisan Presidency

Although Joe Biden is a lifelong Democrat, his political career was long defined by bipartisan compromises and reaching out to the Republican Party with legislative compromises, budget battle solutions, foreign policy consensus, and, notably, personal friendships.

Now it’s time for him to make U.S. history by announcing, prior to the Democratic Party nominating convention, that he will name a bipartisan Cabinet and policy advisers and work with congressional Republican conservative leaders as well as progressive Democrats to find common ground on the issues Americans care about most, starting with border security, inflation, criminal justice, climate change, and support for democracy and the rule of law.

Beyond these problems that Americans want addressed with across-the-aisle cooperation, the issue of partisanship itself is one of voters’ biggest concerns. They tell this to pollsters constantly. Polarization and extremism ranked third across a list of 20 issues asked about in a poll taken in May-June 2023 – just after border security and inflation. Here is just one quote from the analysis:

It’s hard to overstate how dire the situation is because it’s been this way for a while. It’s something, too, that everyday Americans are feeling — and are worried about. “American citizens are growing more extreme and isolated in their political views,” said a white woman in her mid-30s from Wisconsin who identified as a Democrat.

It seems obvious that in the battleground states where the 2024 election between President Biden and Donald Trump will be decided by a few percentage points (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Georgia, and  North Carolina), those who voted for Nikki Haley or preferred other non-Trump candidates in the early GOP primaries would give President Biden another look if he were able to show them that he represents a dramatic break from the hyper-partisanship of our times.

As many of these conservative anti-Trump Republicans and independents tell me in my travels, despite their serious concerns about Trump’s anti-democratic views and support for Valdmir Putin and other autocrats, they won’t vote for Biden’s reelection because they consider him to ideologically “liberal” and, worse, too “partisan.”

This is not the Joe Biden I have known since he was first elected as a moderate Democrat from the then-Republican-leaning state of Delaware. This is someone who during six terms in the Senate was popular among his GOP colleagues who appreciated his knack for finding the sweet spot between left and right for legislative compromises; he’s a man who ran as a moderate in the Democratic presidential field as recently as 2020.

So, there is an opportunity here for Biden to win over these Biden-skeptical anti-Trump voters. One way to do it would be to hit a dramatic re-set button for his campaign – to make history (and good government) by committing to a bipartisan presidency in his second term if reelected.

Grand Coalition Government: Cabinet, Presidential Advisers, Congress

The cabinet would have to be composed of credible progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans. I am not talking about creating a mushy center. For this experiment to work, Biden would be facilitating a cauldron of creativity – staffed by progressives and conservatives with deep principles and values. They would be public servants with a higher calling than winning the next election, people willing to listen to the other side and synthesize the best ideas from each party in a way that would impress the American people and solve great national problems that now only serve to divide us. And the second term Joe Biden would insist on this approach among his fellow Democrats. They must be worried about bipartisan solutions, not winning the next election.

Setting such an example in the executive branch would encourage reform in Congress, an institution designed to produce compromise but instead has been trafficking in gridlock for too long. Ronald Reagan would remind other Republicans that the purpose of a negotiation was to get a deal. My old boss Bill Clinton often implored his fellow Democrats not to let “the perfect” be enemy of “the good.” It was sound advice then and remains so today. The American people don’t expect perfection. They do want good-faith efforts to find solutions. Multiple polls since 2022 to the present confirm overwhelming public support for bipartisanship and compromise.

“Team of Rivals” in the Cabinet

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin famously wrote how Abraham Lincoln gathered his political adversaries (who also disliked each other) in his administration at this country’s most perilous time – and made it work. In so doing, America’s greatest president showed how contrary voices within a Cabinet can be important and necessary even during a Civil War that imperiled the Union.

We don’t need to go back that far, either. In the grim hours after the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta worked in tandem to ground the nation’s air traffic in case more attacks were coming. Cheney, a conservative Republican, had known Mineta, a liberal Democrat, when both served in Congress. They were rivals in the House, on opposite sides of most policy issues. But they were always able to seek compromise without drama or rancor.

There are many credible Republican leaders with strong anti-Trump views who are obvious candidates, if they are willing, to serve in an historic bipartisan Cabinet and second term Biden administration. The list includes Sen. Mitt Romney, former Rep. Liz Cheney, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former GOP governors Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie along with former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, and other GOP congressional leaders who opposed Trump’s election denialism. They recognize the reality of Trump’s complicity in an attempted insurrection to stop the counting of votes in 2021, and are repulsed by Trump’s pro-Putin and pro-autocratic foreign policy.

On the Democratic side, Biden could choose such respected progressive leaders known to be able to compromise to achieve legislative solutions, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Michigan Gov. Grechen Whitmer.

A New “Senior Presidential Advisory Council”

Biden is fortunate to be able to call upon former presidents and top leaders of prior Democratic and Republican administrations to serve on a newly created official Presidential Senior Advisory Council. The first co-chairs could be ex-presidents (and personal friends) Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, with Barack Obama waiting in the wings. On foreign policy, Biden could tap the expertise of luminaries ranging from former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice, John Kerry, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Clinton could do double duty on a committee of former first ladies, with Laura Bush and Michelle Obama. A domestic policy bipartisan counterpart could be co-chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and could include former House Republican Speaker (and now anti-Trump conservative) Paul Ryan and former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Perhaps even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could be part of the bipartisan team, too. Beyond her articulate expression of progressive views, AOC has been a constructive force in Congress for pragmatic compromise.

Congressional Presidential Advisory Caucus

President Biden could also commit to a new bipartisan approach with finding compromise solutions in the now highly polarized, virtually dysfunctional Congress. He could start with those Republicans who reject Donald Trump’s involvement and encouragement of the Jan. 6 insurrection, his election denialism and support military assistance to Ukraine in defiance of Trump’s pro-Putin stand. There are many Republicans, for example, who were also willing to defy Trump’s cynical demand to House Republicans that they oppose the Lankford Senate compromise on border security if the speaker allowed them to vote on the floor.

Biden could draw on the goodwill he engendered while serving in the Senate to urge leaders of both parties to commit to supporting the creation of bipartisan issue-based caucuses in each chamber, comprising key committee chairs and leaders. The radically different approach he would insist on in this history-making second term would entail forging the outlines of legislative compromise on a bipartisan basis. In other words, the goal is to follow the model we saw practiced by the Senate border security bipartisan group, led by Senate progressives such as Connecticut’s Chris Murphy and Delaware’s Chris Coons, and Oklahoma conservative Republican James Lankford. The tough work leading to that compromise, including closing the abuses in the asylum system, was done before legislation was crafted, not (as has been the custom throughout our history) by one political party’s leaders and caucus before any attempt at compromise is made with the opposition party.

A Pipe Dream?

Of course, cynics and partisans on both sides will say this is impossible.  “Not practical.” “It can never happen.” It’s “too far out there.”

Maybe that’s right. Probably it’s true. But this is also true: The times we are living in call for it. The current paralysis and polarization are so bad, the danger of Trump winning the November election so real, presenting serious dangers to our democracy and the rule of law are so real, that presenting such an historically unprecedented bipartisan presidency must just make the seemingly impossible possible. Read the words of the president who assembled that original “team of rivals.” In the second year of the Civil War, in his report to Congress in the winter of 1862, Abraham Lincoln said this:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then new shall save our country.” 

For my approach to have any chance of working, conservative Republican leaders willing to join Joe Biden’s bipartisan Cabinet and administration would have to believe that more than defeating Donald Trump is the goal here. They would have to believe that Biden is committed to changing the way Washington does business and that he can successfully bring along most of his progressive Democratic congressional leaders and his party’s base to be open to conservative ideas and to find common ground in compromise solutions.

Finally, while this concept of a second term bipartisan presidency seems far-fetched, it almost happened before.

Few people recall today, and perhaps few people knew back then, that the progressive Democratic Party nominee for president in 2004, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, asked Republican Sen. John McCain to be on his presidential ticket. McCain seriously considered accepting the Kerry invitation. I know this because I discussed this at length with McCain and my friend, the late, great Joe Lieberman, at the time. It would have involved policy compromises on issues on which Kerry and McCain had substantial and deeply felt differences.

Had McCain accepted, perhaps it that might have set an example for bipartisan compromise that could have lasted for many years, changing the course of American history.

If Joe Biden were to announce the concept of a bipartisan Cabinet before the Democratic convention, and commit to doing it, he need not name the Cabinet ahead of the convention and get everyone on the list to commit. That may be too much to ask. But by making this public  commitment – perhaps dramatically in his national convention acceptance speech – that should send a message to the American people that he means what he says and says what he means:

“It’s time for a bipartisan presidency – to take a time-out from the hyper-partisanship that has paralyzed our political system for too many years. It’s time to say, enough.”

Of course, if Joe Biden is willing to do this or something close to this, he could not only greatly improve his chances of defeating Trump. It would be one helluva political story – and put second-term President Joseph Biden and 2024 in America’s history books for years to come.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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Photo: US President Joe Biden steps off of Air Force One upon arrival at Delaware Air National Guard in New Castle, Delaware, on April 19, 2024. Biden is spending the weekend in Delaware. (Photo by Julia Nikhinson / AFP) (Photo by JULIA NIKHINSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Notable Replies

  1. I’m sorry, but I struggled to get through this article. Clearly, Lanny Davis is missing a few facts.

    1. Biden is acting as a dictator
    2. Biden is working directly against what the American people want
      a. open border
      b. he has started two wars
      c. he is funding one of them, Ukraine has gotten more money than our US Marines
      d. he has stated on numerous occasions his hatred for more than half the country
    3. He has weaponized the federal gov against his opponent - that is his campaign
    4. He has spent $7 trillion while in office - causing massive inflation harming middle and low class
    5. Biden just turned over Title IX - which will cause incredible harm to young girls
    6. Law and order has been abandoned (see #3)

    I could go on, but Lanny Davis wants RINOs to join the Democrat team to help push Biden across the finish line. GFY Lanny.

  2. The author has fantasies of returning to the the good old pre-Trump Establishment days. Pure nostalgia and a fools errand. It’s precisely what shouldn’t happen and won’t. No matter what happens to Trump or the result of the election, Trump’s intervention into American politics is permanent. We’re not going back nor should we. Trump’s populist movement continues to grow and will not be stopped as more Americans get red pilled as they see democrat criminal incompetence, experience their destructive policies and observe their vicious attempts to destroy political opponents. It’s an absurdity to think Democrats can be worked with in a bipartisan manner at all. They are a despotic party in pursuit of totalitarian power and act in bad faith in almost anything they do. They’re toxic. Lanny Davis is living in a yesteryear dreamworld that will never return. We are at war in our own country and will continue to be.

  3. Your last sentence says it all. Just say it louder and prouder! I never expected to read such a piece in AG.

  4. Who does Lanny think he’s fooling? The entire essay is one gigantic lie within a sea of propaganda. During Bill’s presidency, I never figured out who lied the most: He, Mrs. Bill Clinton, or Lanny. A lot of tough competition there. Should Biden’s handlers actually take Lanny at his word and promise to place the “bipartisan” individuals (far leftists, all) in the administration, the resulting broken promises after their win (God help us) would have no damaging ramifications. How does a political party or anyone for that matter, punish a lame duck president? Quite frankly, I don’t see FJB in office for even a year after the election. He’s done either way. And I will say it again. We are not going to vote our way out of this.

  5. Two problems with this article. It presumes the current Administration is willing to work with the opposition in any meaningful way, instead of running roughshod over it as demonstrated over the past 3 + years. All this Unipartisan cooperation will simply push the current Executive Branch agenda farther and faster down into the same unsustainable pit in which it is headed.

    The second problem is that someone at AG thought this fit to be published here. Much more suitable to be on dozens of other websites that I don’t read.

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