Democracy & Elections

A Coalition of All Democratic Forces, Part II: A Government of National Unity

Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, October 18, 2016, 5:17 PM

Bill Clinton ran for president as a “New Democrat,” one who would thread the needle between Left and Right.

George W. Bush promised that he was “a uniter, not a divider” and a “compassionate conservative.”

Barack Obama, from the time of his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, presented himself as a figure who could bridge the growing partisan divide.

All three men were, I believe, quite sincere in their self-conceptions as standing against partisan polarization.

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Bill Clinton ran for president as a “New Democrat,” one who would thread the needle between Left and Right.

George W. Bush promised that he was “a uniter, not a divider” and a “compassionate conservative.”

Barack Obama, from the time of his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, presented himself as a figure who could bridge the growing partisan divide.

All three men were, I believe, quite sincere in their self-conceptions as standing against partisan polarization.

Yet all three failed to bring the country together: Under their presidencies, the country grew more polarized, not less.

And we slouched towards Trumpism.

The reason for their failure is complex and multi-faceted, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. But I think it’s fair to say that one component of the problem was that national unity was an objective but not the objective for each of these men. Bush may have sincerely wanted to bring Americans together, but he also wanted his tax cuts that liberals loathed. Obama may have famously rejected the red-state-blue-state divide, but he also pushed an ambitious health care agenda that conservatives hated.

I don’t blame either man for these decisions. Bush is, after all, a conservative who promised tax cuts, and Obama a liberal who promised health care reform. And they have voters who elected them and to whom they made promises. And they believed in the policies they pursued. It was perfectly reasonable for both men to seek greater national unity in the context of pursuing their stated agendas. But in a divided polity, this is not how one pursues national unity if one actually means to foster it.

If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in three weeks, she should take a different path. And if the many Republicans and conservatives who, tacitly or openly, are joining with her to defeat Donald Trump know what’s good for them, they should join her for a walk on that different path.

The crisis this country faces today is one of cohesion and unity, first and foremost. And the phenomenon of Donald Trump demonstrates the profound danger of allowing our divisions to fester while pursuing other policy objectives.

For reasons I described yesterday, Clinton has somewhat accidentally ascended to the role of leader of a broad coalition of democratic forces opposing Trump, Trumpism, and the mob-rule populism they represent. This coalition extends far beyond Clinton’s actual voters to include many voters, elected officials, and intellectuals who do not support her yet understand at some level that, at present anyway, she is what separates America from a sort of barbarism and strongmanism unprecedented in our modern history. It is, therefore, Clinton’s peculiar duty to represent the entirety of this coalition, even the parts of it that did not vote for her and will rally against her at the earliest point at which they can do so beneath the banner of a respectable conservative opposition. In fact, Clinton should positively hope to create the space for such a respectable opposition to thrive and operate.

As such, Clinton should aspire to run something more like a government of national unity than a conventional Democratic administration. And Republicans who want to seize their party back from the Trumpists should seek to work with her on common policy objectives.

I am not a utopian or a dreamer and I don’t pretend this will be an easy undertaking either between the parties or within Clinton’s own. But the alternative, allowing the long-term takeover of the Republican Party by white nationalist demagogues is completely unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for conservatism, and it’s unacceptable for America. Because remember: We have a two party system, and in a two-party system, the opposition party eventually wins.

It is essential, therefore, for the coalition of democratic forces to control both major political parties.

The idea of a national unity government is a feature of parliamentary government, not presidential systems like ours. Under this model, the notion is that some moments of crisis require all parties to come together, share power and responsibility, and to put aside differences to focus on governing in the space that unites them. The examples of this with which I am most familiar take place in Israel, where, when wars break out or loom, the opposition will often join the government.

The American presidency is not a power-sharing institution, so the analogy is imperfect. But the idea of a government of national unity has important application to our current situation. We are facing a crisis, and political movements which have markedly different policy aspirations nevertheless share an overriding interest in bolstering American democratic institutions and tamping down the populist madness that threatens anyone’s ability to govern. There are times where the Left-Right division separating liberals from conservatives are the most salient divisions in our politics. This isn’t one of those times. And it makes no sense for our political leadership to squabble over the ideal marginal tax rates when the barbarians are at the gates. The basic concept is that a coalition of all democratic forces, with Hillary Clinton as its necessary leader, should prioritize its shared interests in decent, inclusive, democratic, constitutional government over the any one faction’s particular agenda.

The goal of such a government—that is, of a Hillary Clinton presidency—should be to restore confidence in government, to defend democratic institutions and bolster rule of law culture and society, to deliver the benefits of robust economic growth to a more equitable swath of society, and to give the political opposition time to reconstitute itself as a meaningfully democratic force. As it does so, the government of national unity can dissolve and the parties can go back to contesting the issues that divide them.

In the meantime, any issue that does not serve this broad mission should be a secondary priority, and deferred if possible.

What does such a government look like? First and foremost, it’s a mood.

It’s a mood of refusing to start an administration by asking how energetically the winning side can implement a policy agenda of what degree of ambition. It’s a mood of asking instead for the set of policy objectives around which the broadest possible array of democratic political forces can rally. A presidential candidate makes, over the course of a campaign, dozens of promises to dozens of groups. Which she prioritizes after election is a choice. Clinton can thus emphasize those parts of her agenda that are more divisive—say, building on Obamacare—or those which are more unifying—say, infrastructure. And Republicans can choose to work with her on the parts of her agenda that happen to command broad Republican support.

It’s a mood, in other words, of looking constantly for—and consulting constantly with the coalition of democratic forces about—the overlap of the Venn Diagram between the political objectives of the various democratic forces with the explicit intent of getting things done and thereby marginalizing the non-democratic forces. It’s a mood of regular meetings with the opposing party leadership, even when those meetings seem pointless. It’s a mood not just of seeming to be open to ideas from outside the tent but of actually being open to ideas from outside the tent. It’s a mood among the democratic forces of the Right of not trying to stop everything the administration does, because a democratic Right that aspires to electoral plausibility has no real interest in blowing up Washington. And it's a mood among the democratic forces of the Left of making sure the democratic forces of the Right get to go home and boast of having gotten things done.

It’s a mood, in other words, of not asking how far your team can advance the ball on every play, or how your team can stop the ball from moving at all, if maximally winning the play will produce too much division—a mood of remembering that the “other side” is not actually a football team but a part of the coalition of democratic forces without which the Trumpists might come to power.

On a practical level, a government of national unity means on Clinton’s side putting more than the expected number of Republicans in her cabinet and, on the Republican side, a willingness to serve in that cabinet. An astonishing number of Republican former senior officials of the top notch have very publicly joined this coalition. Some have done so by endorsing Clinton. Some have done so by resisting the pressure to back their own party’s ticket. The more Clinton can engage these democratic elements of the Right, the better. This should be easy in the national security field, where the differences between the responsible elements of the parties just isn’t that great. But it should be the ambition across the board.

On a policy level, a government of national unity means several things beyond focusing on those aspects of one’s own agenda that carry the broadest possible political support within the coalition.

It also means deferring all contested divisive social issues unless the executive branch of the federal government absolutely has to engage them. This does not mean that Hillary Clinton should cease being pro-choice or pro-LGBT-rights or that Republicans should cease being pro-life or supporting traditional marriage. It does mean that if it is not necessary to fight about a social issue right now, it is necessary not to fight it about right now. It means recognizing that symbolic fights are not good for national cohesion. And it means recognizing the huge costs that ongoing contestation of wrenching social issues—which may be necessary, at times—carries in terms of polarization.

It means both sides asking themselves some hard questions about judges and courts. Again, nobody is asking Clinton to pretend here that she does not have her own ambitions to leave her mark on the courts or that it’s not her prerogative to try to do so. But a government of national unity would recognize that this is an area of great pain for many conservatives, including many conservatives who are part of the coalition. And for these people, there is a huge difference between appointing a Merrick Garland and seeking out the youngest, most energetically liberal lawyer you can find to put on the bench.

Senate Republicans have, quite disgracefully, done their best to make this distinction meaningless by blocking Garland, and Clinton could thus be forgiven for taking this as permission to push hard on the courts. Because, you know, lol . . . nothing matters. But this would be a mistake, if an emotionally satisfying mistake. No issue could better embody the concept of a government of national unity than sustained, serious consultation on judgeships and a recognition that both sides have sinned egregiously in their treatment of the other’s judicial nominees.

There is, of course, a flip side here. If Republicans insist on fighting over the Merrick Garlands of the world, there will be no room for Clinton to compromise with them. A government of national unity has to be about finding the space where the democratic coalition can govern, not about showing that such space does not exist. And that means that Clinton cannot bear all of the burden.

Leading a government of national unity is a huge risk for Clinton. Because doing the things it would take will infuriate sectors of the Democratic base, who will see them as a betrayal and a sellout—a quick return to politics as usual. Inhibition on Clinton’s part would thus be understandable. The Left, after all, gave Clinton a scare in this primary, and she has more need now to appease it than she has in the past, particularly if she means to be reelected. The Left, by its nature, does not value making common cause with the Right, and it’s not always very good at distinguishing between the democratic Right and the populist crazy forces of Trumpism.

What’s more, the Right flank of this coalition will difficult to hold. There is always the risk that moves by Clinton towards national unity will not be reciprocated in any meaningful respect by a political opposition that will simply oppose everything in a tribal fashion and will begin gearing up immediately for the next electoral round of gladiatorial combat. The Republican Congress has not been a model of comity.

And that's partly because the project has risks for the democratic forces of the Right as well. A key feature of the undertaking, after all, is the purging of the Republican coalition of the frank bigotry the Trump phenomenon has brought to the fore. The temptation to compromise with Trumpism is always there, even among otherwise responsible Republicans like John McCain and Paul Ryan. The temptation is there because the possibility of defeat at the hands of the Trumpists is very real.

So I don’t mean to diminish in any way the difficulty of what I’m proposing here.

But a political leadership in a crisis has to be prepared to lose and has to take risks. And we are in a crisis, the depths of which even a Clinton landslide victory will not mask. If she wins this election, Clinton needs to try to keep the democratic coalition that defeated Trump together as long as possible. And the coalition, however much elements of it may detest her, cannot simply adopt a policy of biting at her ankles.

Clinton, in other words, needs to be willing to fundamentally reorient her presidency to do address the crisis, and conservatives wise and moral enough to have opposed Trump should help her do so.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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