A Strategic Step Towards Reconciliation

by John Lawrence

A stumbling start is never a great way to begin a race, political or otherwise. In both cases, it is urgent to regain your footing and your stability. After kerfuffles about foundation fundraising and secret emails, Hillary has some work to do to deflect attention from her mis-steps and recast herself and her campaign, as something new, original, and forward-looking. Otherwise, she risks being caught up in a storm of suffocating partisanship, second-guessing, and press animosity that could doom her candidacy before it even begins.

We don’t know whether these incidents are likely to have any impact on the uncommitted voters who will determine who will be the next President of the United States. What we do know is that the candidate who is able to think and act outside the narrow partisan cocoon may well have the best chance at winning that crucial , up-for-grabs, 10% of the electorate.

How does a candidate simultaneously sustain the engagement of the party’s ideological base (which provides most of the money, votes and energy) while also persuading disenchanted voters that his or her candidacy represents an alternative to the highly polarized state of American politics?

Forty years ago, Democratic sage Clark Clifford proposed a “government of national unity” to “transform … years of bitterness, divisiveness, and deterioration to years of healing, unity, and progress.”   Clinton could recast herself and shake things up by reaching across the partisan chasm to independents and reasonable Republicans who want to resume rational discourse. Such an initiative, early in the campaign season, would demonstrate a welcome desire to offer voters something truly unique: a commitment to include diverse but constructive views in the governance process. It also would help round off some of Clinton’s own partisan edges, and isolate the powerful Tea Party Republicans who stand only for extremism and inaction.

Now, how would you go about doing that? Please note: this is not a prediction, it is a suggestion – one option to avoid plunging into the dark, swirling waters of another presidential campaign only to emerge with a battered victor and an exhausted, demoralized and still polarized electorate.

Secretary Clinton would already make history by being the first woman nominated (or elected) President (not to mention as the first former Secretary of State to be elected since James Buchanan in 1856). Why not double down and go one historic step further by selecting former Congressman and former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood of Illinois as her running mate, offering voters a ticket of national reconciliation and pragmatic governance?

Did I mention that Ray is a Republican? Let me disclose all the damage up front. LaHood had a conservative voting record as a six-term congressman from Illinois’ 18th district. La Hood prides himself on sharing a district with historical figures known for their embrace of comity and collaboration while still upholding their GOP credentials including Abraham Lincoln, Everett Dirksen (who played a crucial role in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act) and LaHood’s former employer, GOP Minority Leader Bob Michel.

His selection certainly would provoke groans from key segments of the Democratic base who reject his votes on wedge issues like choice and guns. Absence of purity is the inevitable trade-off in coalition politics. But LaHood was no reflexive right-winger. He voted to preserve affirmative action in college admissions, he voted against taxpayer vouchers for private and religious schools, he voted “yes” on allowing reimportation of prescription drugs to reduce costs to consumers, and he voted to raise the minimum wage in 2007 – all positions strongly favored by liberals.

He was one of just three GOP candidates in 1994 who refused to sign onto Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” Most important, he was a Member who enjoyed the respect and trust of Democrats and Republicans alike, who rarely engaged in harsh partisan rhetoric, and who genuinely believes that the most important talent in governing is an ability to find common ground. And he had a working relationship with Mrs. Clinton during the time they both served in President Obama’s first term Cabinet.

Admittedly, LaHood’s selection would do little to placate those for whom Clinton herself is a stretch, either on the Right or among those discontented liberal purists who still want to punish her for her Iraq vote or her closeness to Wall Street.  And yes, she could demonstrate an openness to ideological diversity by selecting a moderate to conservative Democrat rather than by going all out and selecting a moderate Republican. But the left would be just as angry about a conservative Democrat on the ticket, and for the Right, well, any plausible moderate Democrat is bound to have a litany of liberal votes that earns as much approbation from conservatives as Clinton does herself.  Analysts have pointed out that the most conservative Democrat in Congress these days is still more liberal than the most moderate Republican.

Cross-party ticket balancing might appeal to crucial moderate and independent voters disenchanted with both parties and ambivalent about voting for anybody, let alone a polarizing figure like Clinton. LaHood fits the bill: fair-minded, non-ideological, and credible to people on both sides of the aisle. He was chosen to preside over Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the House because he exuded unfailing fairness. (Talk about Hillary sending a message of reconciliation!)

LaHood has a long history of trying to dampen down the partisan passions that have helped stagnate American politics. In the 1990’s, LaHood and former Rep. David Skaggs (D-CO) initiated several well-attended bipartisan retreats for fellow House Members designed to restore the dissipating comity that once allowed Democrats and Republicans to fraternize in the House gym, on the floor, or during international travel. The effort fizzled for a variety of reasons, but no one doubted LaHood’s sincerity, or the desirability of turning down the partisan heat.

Every progressive interest group or liberal activist can compose a list of LaHood votes with which they disagreed, and would point out the contradictory positions held by Clinton and LaHood. (I expect to hear from lots of them real soon.) But disagreements between running mates are not unusual either. Remember that Barack Obama selected Joe Biden who won his earliest legislative victory in the mid-1970s leading the Senate charge against school busing to achieve racial balance.

The point is this: if we are going to move beyond the partisan stand-off, we need to rebuild public confidence that government, and the people who run it, can function collaboratively. Many foreign parliamentary governments today are created by such cross-party alliances that our two party system effectively precludes. But the voters who will decide the next election pretty clearly want candidates who do not lock themselves into ideological rigidity that demonizes the opponent and complicates the chances for cooperation and collaboration after the voting is over. Whoever wins (with 50% of the vote, if he or she is lucky) will have no mandate to govern unless faith in government itself is first re-established.

Is it chancy to nominate a bipartisan ticket? Sure. Are these times that cry out for something unprecedented? Maybe. Great challenges demand significant risk, and voters want to see that the person who aspires to the presidency is prepared make tough decisions. Here’s Clinton’s chance.

Clinton-LaHood 2016: unity over purity, progress over posturing, a ticket of national reconciliation. Worth thinking about?