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A unity slate to save the Democrats — and the republic

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The current Democratic primary field is enormous and talented. Yet the next several months will likely transpire like the “Hunger Games.”

The candidates will doggedly fight one another with everything they have until all but one are forced to surrender under the harsh logic of chasing dollars and votes to survive. As impressive as this group is, the party risks a zero-sum fight that could play to its worst instincts and weaken it for the general election.

The structure of the primary process, and the rich diversity of the party itself, may end up subverting the ability of Democrats to come together to address the nation’s most urgent concern: the real danger the Trump presidency poses to American democracy.

There is a big and daring alternative: Democrats could create a unity slate for 2020.

By announcing a president, a vice president and a series of specific high-level Cabinet posts, a unity slate would bring power, voice and vision to the broad array of Democratic constituents and concerns. Out of division and disarray could come unity and vision. In the present environment, a unity slate would send a powerful signal to voters about the pressing nature of the 2020 presidential election.

The slate could run on a simple and powerful idea: that this uniquely vulnerable moment in American democracy calls upon us to put aside our differences and commit ourselves to reinvesting in and reinvigorating government by, for, and of the people. Everyone can contribute to the same team according to their particular strengths. It models what needs to be done nationally.

Other nations have formed what are called “unity governments” in times of crisis. It is a common parliamentary tactic that brings together competing parties into a unified platform. Winston Churchill famously united leading Conservatives and Labour leaders in Great Britain in the heat of World War II in order to focus national efforts on fighting the war. Greece formed a unity government in 2011 as the two largest parties temporarily set aside their differences in pursuit of a critical financial lifeline during the European debt crisis. Germany has formed a series of grand coalition governments between the center-left and center-right since the mid-2000s in order to exclude radical left parties tied to Eastern Germany’s communist past that are widely viewed as beyond the pale.

While it is not a model that extends naturally to the winner-take-all system of electing U.S. presidents, that does not mean that the idea does not have both merit and traction.

An American analogue — and it is not a perfect example — might be Republican Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War government. His most famous opponent, Democrat Stephen Douglas, went to work on Lincoln’s behalf when the war began. For his administration, Lincoln included his highly skilled opponents in his Cabinet, allowing him to be surrounded by what he called “the very strongest men,” noting, “I had not right to deprive the country of their services.” For his second term, he selected Andrew Johnson, a unionist Democrat, for the vice presidency. They ran not as Republicans but under the National Union ticket. Although Lincoln’s assassination and the controversies of reconstruction would quickly fray the coalition, the ticket gave him the authority and legitimacy needed to conduct the Civil War.

All we seem to hear in the present environment of partisan and identity warfare are stark differences among the candidates. In reality there’s more commonality than division. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigeig and Amy Klobuchar see eye to eye on many policy issues. Their differences on the Green New Deal, Medicare, taxes and gun laws pale in comparison to their shared ideals.

But Biden could use some youth and diversity; Buttigeig some experience and vision; Warren some centrist credibility; Klobuchar some energy and coastal connection. And the much discussed policy disagreements aren’t going to matter anyway without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate — a near-impossible scenario. By setting aside their differences, several of these candidates could telegraph that they prioritize serving the higher ideal of defending democracy, while advancing bread-and-butter issues.

One of the stark ironies of American campaigns is that they don’t matter as much as we think they do. According to recent work in political science, “the best estimates of the effects of campaign contact and advertisings […] on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero.” In place of millions and millions of dollars wasted, the unity slate would provide both a bold statement and a practical lesson in the type of politics Americans claim to want — something greater than negative television ads and something more visionary than the old horse race.

There are reasons to suspect that this strategy may shake up the 2020 election. By uniting moderate and progressive democrats — ideally with one taking the presidential slot and another the vice presidency — a unity slate would incorporate ideas that nearly every stripe of Democrat could cheer. And it could pump up voter turnout and increase the number, diversity and geography of people hitting the campaign trail. Even independents and those concerned about the personalization of politics under Donald Trump could not ignore the strength of an all-hands-on-deck call to action. 

Convincing the candidates themselves to converge on a unity platform, of course, is hardly straightforward. If each sincerely believes that he or she could win the presidential nomination, why would any of them accede to a mere Cabinet post or the vice presidency? And when would they ideally forge such a ticket?

If they wait too long and it becomes clear after several primary contests who will emerge as the victor, voters might view a unity ticket merely as a desperate or self-serving attempt to win a few more votes. The signaling value of overcoming policy differences and political ambitious in service of a loftier national idea would be lost. On the other hand, if they propose a unity ticket too early, they may not go into the general election with the most popular candidates at the top of the ticket. 

The best route would be to wait until after the first handful of primary contests. That would generate more concrete, but not complete, candidate sorting. More candidates will be facing the reality that their hopes for the nomination are becoming slim. On the other hand, the nomination will not be wrapped up, which means that forging a unity slate would still turn heads around the country.

But the time to start thinking about it is now.

Given the diverse coalition of people and interests that gives the Democratic Party purpose, it is an organization that struggles to join forces. This problem is exacerbated in an age of manipulative polarization and tribalization. A unity slate might just be the answer. 

Historian Jefferson Cowie holds the James G. Stahlman Chair in the department of history at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is “The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics.” Mike Albertus is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is “Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.” They are both fellows of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Tags 2020 Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden

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