Biden’s counterintuitive task

Getty Images

The rumblings and grumblings and jostlings have begun. Some Democrats, hoping to populate a new administration, are concerned that the Biden team is vetting some Republicans for possible appointments. The president-elect has pledged to be a president for all Americans, and his long history of bipartisan collaboration makes that a serious commitment.   

If elected president, however, the historic moment will demand more than a few political appointees from the other party. Joe Biden will face a thoroughly counterintuitive task: Helping to revive a constructive Republican Party.

That vital responsibility rests primarily on other shoulders, but for Biden to be a healing president he must prove that he can, in fact, build the broad coalitions of which he has spoken. More than anyone in politics today, he is by background and temperament well equipped for the mission. 

The task is daunting, but inescapable. So long as the disfigured tangle President Trump has made of the Republican Party persists, effective bipartisan collaboration is infeasible. Thus, the success of a Biden presidency depends on helping the opposition find a fresh footing compatible with responsible governance. That goal, in turn, will require a blend of incentives for those with Republican sympathies to make common cause with a Democratic administration. Today’s intense polarization highlights the obstacles, but Biden knows that previous presidents have overcome similar challenges. He will have tools at his disposal to address the problem.

The familiar options involve personnel. Franklin Roosevelt strengthened his leadership in the Second World War by enlisting Republicans Henry Stimson and Frank Knox to head the War and Navy Departments. Richard Nixon could not persuade Henry Jackson to join his Cabinet, but he later found in John Connelly a favored ally from the other party. Successive presidents followed the same path, often by placing the Defense Department in the hands of respected leaders from the other party. 

Biden would do well to consider a wider range of possible Cabinet assignments. The international portfolios at the United Nations and in the trade representative offices could well be assumed by competent Republicans. There may even be qualified GOP leaders who could lead the Treasury and Commerce Departments toward policy goals set by Biden. 

In the short-term, careful appointments of this nature could serve Biden’s purposes. In the longer term, they could also build the reputations of Republican leaders who could restore civility and principle to a conservative opposition. To be sure promoting the careers of likely political adversaries is, to paraphrase Paul Warnke’s description of arms control, not a natural habit. Nevertheless, weighed against the urgency of finding common ground now, it is a risk worth taking.

Personnel appointments cannot be merely token if they are to alleviate partisan hostilities toward a Biden government. Beyond personnel, however, the central challenge will be to craft policies that earn support beyond the Democratic perimeter. 

The difficulties can hardly be exaggerated. President Obama’s instincts were to find common ground on issues, but he was thwarted by Republican leaders in Congress determined to make him a one-term president. Similarly, when Thomas Foley became House speaker, he hoped to build bridges to moderate Republicans, a number of whom reciprocated the ambition. He, too, was frustrated in that effort, in Foley’s case by the tough partisan stances of the so-called cardinals, the Democratic chairmen of key committees. Can Biden succeed in this balancing act where others have failed? 

When it comes to policy, the important work of opinion analyst Steven Kull points toward a plausible path. Over the past several years, Kull has led a program called Voice of the People (VOP). Working with congressional members and staff, VOP has devised systematic presentations of options on major policy questions — the federal budget, cutting the deficit, immigration reform, international trade, nuclear weapons policy, the Affordable Care Act. Kull has invented and conducted policy simulations involving the participation of thousands of respondents. Those presentations, carefully framed to present the strongest arguments by proponents and opponents of specific proposals, are reviewed by representative panels of citizens. On issue after issue, Kull has demonstrated that, given accurate, fair and well-organized information, a majority of citizens converge with surprising frequency on rational consensus positions. 

This body of research is now quite extensive. It can liberate both Democrats and Republicans from the partisan strictures strangling their cooperation. It opens fresh possibilities for members of Congress and the executive branch to shape workable solutions to the country’s manifold problems. It shows that Biden has space to rally many Republicans to reasonable policies.

The campaign has already mobilized support from significant Republicans. There is a notable pool of experienced, talented men and women who stand prepared to help Biden in this crucial undertaking. 

As the United States enters the next phase of its political journey, it will need more than a Biden election to make progress. No factor is more central than the lessons drawn by Republicans from the popular rebuke of Trumpism. Will they find political wisdom more in partisan carping or in partnership to do the nation’s business?  

Alton Frye is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. He served as staff director for U.S, Sen. Edward Brooke and as the organizer of numerous bipartisan initiatives, including the collaboration of Howard Baker, Edmund Muskie and Richard Nixon to offer confidential counsel to Ronald Reagan.

Tags 2020 election 2020 presidential election bipartisan Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Tom Foley United States Senate career of Joe Biden

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video