By Lanny J. Davis
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Imagine this scenario: The country is so deeply divided that the media have color-coded the map of the United States to indicate the partisan chasm -- one color covers the South and most of the border states, the other drenches the North.
As the presidential election year nears, one candidate, a shoo-in for his party's nomination, has an obvious choice for running mate. Yet he also senses the uniqueness of the moment. So he makes a risky decision: He asks a leader of the opposition to run for vice president alongside him, forming the first bipartisan presidential ticket in U.S. history.
This is no fantasy. It's the decision Abraham Lincoln made when, running for reelection in 1864, he asked his Republican vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, to quit the ticket in favor of the highly partisan Democrat Andrew Johnson.
Lincoln's experiment in bipartisanship was tragically cut short when he was assassinated less than a month after his 1865 inauguration. But if ever there was a time to give it a second try, it's now.
Today's national unease and rabid partisanship -- so similar to the circumstances of 1864 -- raise the challenge for someone to form a bipartisan ticket in 2008. The lingering trauma of 9/11, the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism call for an administration open to bipartisan solutions to the crises that confront the country.
Last year's congressional elections showed that voters are tired of the partisan gridlock in Washington. They want some solutions from liberals and others from conservatives. That's the new politics of our age, as exemplified by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's reelection in Connecticut as an "independent" Democrat. Though he has voted mostly with his fellow Democrats over the years, Lieberman is open to both liberal and conservative approaches.
The most important reason for a bipartisan presidency in 2008 is the need to find solutions to the war in Iraq and to avoid delaying the end of significant U.S. involvement over fear of partisan recriminations. Solving the dilemma of Iraq -- how to get U.S. troops out of harm's way in a civil war yet not leave behind a rogue state dominated by terrorists -- will require bipartisan effort and support.
A bipartisan administration is also essential for enacting new taxes. Most responsible political leaders in both parties know -- though few are willing to admit it publicly -- that there is no way to pay for the war in Iraq, even as it winds down, and reduce the deficit while also addressing health care, energy independence, global warming and Social Security other than by raising taxes. Only a bipartisan presidency pushing leaders on both sides of the aisle can make it possible to tackle that issue honestly.
So how do you put a bipartisan ticket together? Theodore Sorenson, speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, wrote a book in 1984 describing the various ways it might be done.
The Democratic and/or Republican nominee could do what Lincoln did -- reach out to a leader of the other party as a running mate at the nominating convention. Another scenario, which I prefer, would be for the two parties to nominate their respective tickets and wage a traditional partisan campaign on the issues, so that voters could see each party's approach and weigh their preferences. After the election, the winner would ask his or her vice president-elect to step down (and become, for example, secretary of state) while inviting the defeated presidential or vice presidential candidate from the other party to serve as vice president. This plan would ideally be announced during the campaign -- with the vice presidential candidate agreeing to act as a placeholder on the ticket -- so that the electorate would be aware of the commitment to a bipartisan presidency.
In this scenario, the vice president could be selected after the election by the Electoral College, which would presumably honor the president-elect's request to vote for the president or vice president of the defeated party. Or the selection could occur after the inauguration, with the newly sworn-in vice president resigning and the resulting vacancy filled, under the 25th Amendment, by a majority vote in both houses of Congress. The advantage of this latter method is that it would receive Congress's ratification of the concept of a bipartisan presidency.
In forming his administration, the new president would continue to adhere to the ideal of bipartisanship, selecting a 50-50 Cabinet and choosing judicial nominees on the basis of merit rather than party.
There are any number of provocative possibilities for a bipartisan ticket in 2008. Imagine the buzz if Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton committed to making the other vice president in the event that either won the election. Pick any combination of other names in the current field of potential candidates: Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Chuck Hagel; Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Republican Mitt Romney; Democrat John Edwards and Republican Michael Bloomberg; Democrat Bill Richardson and Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani. Any of these bipartisan pairings, in any permutation, would create a stir -- and a dynamite ticket. (Okay, strike one possible combination -- there's no way we'll see a Clinton-Giuliani ticket, or vice versa; not only does the Constitution forbid it, as they're both from the same state, but their personal chemistry would preclude it, too.)
Will it happen? In the end, political realism will be the determining factor. If it appears that a bipartisan ticket could enhance the chances of victory, and if any party leader embraces the need to make this a reality for the country's sake, then yes, it's likely to happen.
You don't have to go back 143 years to Abraham Lincoln for an example of such a judgment. Less than three years ago, Democrat John F. Kerry reportedly saw the political wisdom in asking McCain to be his vice presidential candidate, even though he knew the idea would be vehemently opposed by the Democratic Party's liberal base, which disagreed with McCain's positions on abortion, the Iraq war and other issues. Though McCain declined the invitation, it seems evident in hindsight that a Kerry-McCain ticket would have had a better chance of picking up an extra state (or turning 75,000 votes in Ohio) to win the 2004 election.
And whether or not either party takes the dramatic step of committing to a bipartisan ticket, there could be one nonetheless. A well-funded group of national political experts from both parties called "Unity '08," led by Republican pollster Douglas Bailey and former Democratic presidential aide Hamilton Jordan, is ready to fill the void and run a third, bipartisan ticket that would be nominated online through a virtual convention.
But I'm betting that such a third ticket won't be necessary, because eitherDemocrats or Republicans -- or both -- will nominate a bipartisan ticket in 2008 or commit to a bipartisan presidency after the election. And I'll wager that if only one of the parties does it, that party will win.
Lanny J. Davis, special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 1998, is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America" (Palgrave Macmillan).