Amid heated exchanges over Medicare-for-all and the need to appeal to all factions of their diverse party, most Democratic candidates have also looked ahead to what might be the next president’s biggest challenge.
“The next president will inherit a divided nation, and a divided world,” former Vice President Joe Biden told a recent Dubuque, Iowa, town hall. “It’s going to require someone who can unify this nation.”
“I’m running to be the president who can turn the page and unify a dangerously polarized country while tackling those issues that are going to be just as urgent then as they are now,” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in last month’s Ohio debate.
“We … need someone who can unify the party and the country and who has the experience of having done that,” California Sen. Kamala Harris said in last week’s Atlanta debate. “I’ve done that work.”
But re-uniting a sharply divided country after the bitterly divisive presidency of Donald Trump — whenever that occurs — will take more than accurate analyses of the problem or optimistic pledges of being up to that task.
Like the old song “It Takes Two to Tango,” it will require not only the active bipartisan outreach from the next president but also the buy-in from leaders of whichever party loses the election that elects Trump’s successor, whether a Democrat in 2020 or a Republican later on.
History shows how hard it will be to lessen political acrimony and restore at least a semblance of the bipartisanship that once marked foreign policy and, at times, domestic issues.
The most positive modern example came 45 years ago, when the near certainty of impeachment and conviction persuaded Richard Nixon to yield the presidency to his vice president, former House Republican Leader Gerald Ford.
Ford ascended with three advantages. Most important, his accession ensured the 1972 will of the voters would be respected through Nixon’s second term.
Second, he was both Nixon’s choice (albeit reluctantly) for vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 and acceptable to the top congressional Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and House Speaker Carl Albert. They knew Ford well and appreciated his personal qualities.
Third, Ford set a positive tone from the moment he took the presidential oath and declared, “Our long national nightmare is over.” By later pardoning Nixon, Ford ensured that, despite initial partisan criticism, his tenure would focus on the country’s current problems, not the divisive, prior presidency.
In time, the onset of the 1976 election ensured the return of partisanship, but it was less acrimonious than it would have been without Ford’s positive leadership.
Another period of unity was the 2001 détente between former President George W. Bush and top Democrats after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. That brief era of good feeling ended when Bush invaded Iraq and many Democrats resisted.
But an opportunity was missed after Barack Obama, benefitting from divisions over the Iraq war and a sharp economic downturn, won the 2008 election with an optimistic message, a solid electoral majority and control of both houses of Congress.
Obama didn’t always adhere to his promises to set a new tone. And Republicans embraced opposition from the outset, resisting a needed measure to stimulate a recession-ridden economy and Obama’s landmark health care plan, though both contained GOP elements.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell pressured GOP colleagues against cooperating and proclaimed Obama’s defeat his main four-year objective.
Though the Kentucky senator failed, Obama’s tenure became increasingly partisan, in part because Republicans regained the House, and later the Senate, and in part because he often used executive authority to surmount congressional gridlock.
Obama’s successor, Trump, made no pretense of bipartisanship, making clear from the outset he would govern to please the minority of Americans who voted for him.
Today, as Trump faces impeachment and possible conviction, there are no Gerald Fords on the horizon. In the unlikelihood of Senate conviction, he would be succeeded by the ideologically rigid Mike Pence, who has spent three years as a Trump apologist.
Other more likely options are hardly more promising.
A second Trump term would presumably mirror and perhaps exacerbate the divisions of his first.
A narrow Democratic victor could find governing difficult, especially with a Republican Senate unconvinced Trump’s course was wrong.
Perhaps only the unlikely result of a big Democratic victory that included the Senate would convince enough Republicans to forsake all-out opposition, a prospect Biden repeatedly suggests he could achieve.
Most importantly, any victorious Democrat or post-Trump Republican would have to put actions behind promises of unity and show willingness for significant compromise. More centrist hopefuls like Biden, Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar would seem better bets than ideological liberals like Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine that any could surmount current divisions. It may require a real domestic or international crisis — and a resulting political shakeup — to force the kind of cooperation that seems so unlikely today.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.