Is nonpartisan effectiveness still possible?

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Here’s something interesting, that might come as a pleasant surprise: Except for five small countries, the U.S. is at the top of vaccination rates when compared to the rest of the world. So how did this happen? And who gets credit? 

Since we’re now more than a month into Joe Biden’s presidency, credit for the success of the COVID-19 vaccination program — from its creation last year to its distribution this year — can be shared between the Democratic 46th president and the Republican 45th president, Donald Trump. 

Of course, there’s another category that transcends the partisan political framework: the non-partisan hero. For a year now, frontline emergency workers have been saving lives — and sometimes losing their own lives in the process — all the while acting without regard to party or partisanship. 

Interestingly, at the height of the virus crisis, last spring, both parties came together in common cause; the CARES Act passed the Republican-controlled Senate, 96 to 0, and the Democratic-controlled House, 419 to 6.  

We might recall that one of the fruits of the CARES Act was Operation Warp Speed (OWS). And we might pay special attention to a non-partisan figure who has been quietly serving as chief operating officer for nearly a year now; that would be Gen. Gustave Perna, a four-star logistics expert whose prior posting was the U.S. Army’s Materiel Command. 

To be sure, there’s been plenty of partisan brawling over COVID-19. And yet all the while, non-partisan professionals at OWS have been working for the public good.  It’s refreshing to read, for instance, that in November, Perna and the many other military officers detailed to OWS drew inspiration from Arthur Herman’s 2013 book, “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.” That society-wide effort still ranks as the gold standard of non-partisan public service and national achievement.  

And the proof is in the vaccinating: As of March 1, some 78 million doses have been administered in the U.S., and many experts predict we will be at or near normal by the end of this year. So we can see: Even amidst political storm and stress, government can function and the nation can be restored. 

I was honored to have played a small supporting role in this epic drama. For the past four years — during the Trump administration and for the first month of the Biden administration — I served as director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, the nation’s premier fellowship program for service and leadership. So when COVID-19 hit, many of the fellows — including the contingent of doctors — got right to work on this new challenge. 

During my tenure, the 36-member commission selected a total of 58 White House fellows, while I oversaw their actual job-placement across the executive branch. I am proud to say that never once in the selection and placement process did any of the fellows’ partisanship, or lack of partisanship, become an issue. Today, the newest class, which was chosen last summer, is half-way through its one-year term, now serving under President Biden.  

Indeed, the fellowship has reached across 11 presidencies, producing such famous alumni as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Colin Powell, Sanjay Gupta and Elaine Chao. In addition, three current federal lawmakers are alums: Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), and Sens. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).  

And as we think about how this country’s governments — local, state and federal — get things done, we might consider a crucial distinction made by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.); he distinguishes between politics and civics. That is, politics is the mechanism by which we choose our leaders, while civics is the stuff of government itself, as it functions, in good times and in hard times.  

Vigorously contested politics can clarify our choices and yet only strong civics can knit together the frayed fabric of this great nation. 

Elizabeth Dial Pinkerton served as director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships from April 2017 through February 2021. 

Tags Ben Sasse Bill Hagerty Colin Powell COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccinations Dan Sullivan Donald Trump Elaine Chao frontline workers Joe Biden nonpartisanship operation warp speed partisanship Sharice Davids

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