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 the recent 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.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine that any could surmount current divisions.