No presidential candidate can unite the country

No presidential candidate can unite the country
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Calls for a Democratic presidential candidate who can “bring this country together” wrongly assume a candidate can wield such power.

Presidents rarely unite the country. When they do, it’s often in the face of crises like foreign attacks on U.S. soil or other national tragedies. Such unity requires a leader eager to lead and a populace eager to follow. It demands a national dialogue in which Americans across ideologies, demography and experiences can participate.

But these days no national dialogue can connect America’s splintered factions.


Some hardcore liberals disparage compromise while remaining infuriated with the ways Republicans like President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE treated President Barack Obama. Some hardcore conservatives view Obama as an illegitimate president, and others wouldn’t rule out continuing to support Trump even if he publicly admitted to being a racist.

How exactly would a Democratic presidential candidate bring these two sides together? What perfect speech or charisma or heroism is needed?

The “unite the country” crowd is well-meaning. Some reside in the moderate wings of their respective parties. Others are true independents, embracing a balanced approach to governing that puts sound policy above politics.

But solutions in vacuums are not solutions. Yearning for the idyllic is not a strategy.

We are a nation of two-pronged anger. And true, this is not the worst it’s ever been, though some believe we might be headed in that direction.


In today’s climate, cross-party animosity cannot be easily untangled. Shared mistrust and disdain permeates political and social structures. Rancor among elected officials is on the rise. Media personalities stoke outrage daily. Families are being torn apart, not just physically at our southern border but emotionally, in cities and suburbs and towns across the country.

This march toward unwavering mutual contempt is illustrated in Gallup’s presidential job approval ratings — namely, the support gap between respondents of a president’s party and respondents from the opposing party. For example, Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s average GOP approval was 88 percent, while his average approval from Democrats was only 49 percent, giving him a support gap of 39 percentage points among the two parties.

In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, the average support gap ranged from a low of 27 percentage points (Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterOvernight Health Care — Presented by Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing — Judge blocks Trump 'public charge' rule | Appeals court skeptical of Trump arguments for Medicaid work requirements | CDC offers guidance for treating vaping-related cases In Syria, making America ashamed again — and weaker Garth Brooks on Jimmy Carter's volunteer work: 'Nobody cares about "Republican" or "Democrat" in heaven' MORE) to a high of 41 points (Richard Nixon). Beginning in the 1980s, with the exception of George H. W. Bush (38 percent), the support gap steadily grew with each succeeding president: Ronald Reagan (52 percent), Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson Clinton10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable A Republican Watergate veteran's perspective on a Trump impeachment Beware the 34th month of Trump's presidency MORE (55 percent), George W. Bush (61 percent), and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama praises marathon runners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei for 'remarkable examples of humanity's ability' Each of us has a role in preventing veteran suicide Why calls for impeachment have become commonplace MORE (70 percent).

Donald Trump’s average support gap is 78 percent. Intensifying partisan madness has grown more dangerous and damning, but it’s not new and won’t fade when Trump’s presidency ends. 

To those who believe ideological moderation is the key to electoral success, the past 40 years of presidential elections prove otherwise. Reagan’s strident conservatism crushed moderate southern Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980, while the deeply conservative George W. Bush defeated moderate southern Democrat Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold Gore2020 general election debates announced Odds place Greta Thunberg as front-runner for this year's Nobel Peace Prize Joe Lieberman's son running for Senate in Georgia MORE in 2000.  

Obama — one of the nation’s most liberal U.S. senators — beat center-right “maverick” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Video depicting Trump killing media, critics draws backlash Backlash erupts at video depicting Trump killing media, critics Cindy McCain condemns video of fake Trump shooting political opponents, late husband MORE (R-Ariz.) in 2008. And while Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSaagar Enjeti: Tuesday's Democratic debate already 'rigged' against Gabbard, Sanders Ilhan Omar raises .1 million in third quarter Bloomberg rethinking running for president: report MORE was perceived by many to be sharply liberal, her Senate record indicated otherwise: a left-center ideology upended by Trump’s hard-edged conservatism.

So if “bringing the country together” is a pipe dream, and if centrist thinking is not a reliable recipe for electoral success, where does this leave us? How can we reverse course and retrace our steps toward some semblance of comity and restraint? 

A threat to our two-party system would be the surest way to end this political morass. It could come in the form of a strong and sustained third-party movement. Or if the Democratic or Republican Party loses enough power — for a sufficient period of time — it will face its own existential crisis: change or die. This latter scenario would force the party to transform its ideals and broaden its appeal. It would mean competing for more of the other party’s voters, instead of branding them as un-American. It would create opportunities for both parties to champion the same causes, fostering more collaboration.

There are no quick-and-easy answers to the question, “How can we bring the country together?” No one — not even a “perfect” candidate — can undo what continues to be done. The sooner America understands this, the sooner we can all look inward and take personal responsibility for our role in this war against hate.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.