Drastic Times Call for Bipartisan Measures

Why the candidates should emulate Lincoln when it comes to choosing a cabinet

By Justin Chapman, Berkeley Political Review, Fall 2008

Few presidents in the course of American history have been as divisive and partisan as the one we have had to endure the past eight years. Single party rule for six of the last eight years has proved disastrous. Americans are extremely dissatisfied with the performance of their government. According to a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted the first week of October, 74 percent of the public disapproves of the job the current administration is doing.

In order to wean the country from the partisan bickering and exclusive governance under George W. Bush, the next president of the United States, whether it be John McCain or Barack Obama, should assemble a cabinet of the most capable and knowledgeable men and women without regard to political party.

Modern presidential cabinets have consisted mostly of the president's party with few exceptions. In that environment there is very little incentive to consider outside ideas. Bill Clinton had on Republican, former Senator William Cohen, as Bush II had one Democrat, California congressman Norman Mineta. While some past presidents have picked rival party members for cabinet positions, no modern president has put together a cabinet consisting of several members from both major parties, let alone third party candidates.

During the Great Depression, England's J. Ramsay MacDonald assembled a cabinet called the Government of Cooperation, which included four Conservatives, four Laborites, and four Liberals, with a goal "to deal with the national emergency that now exists." If this current economic recession is not a national emergency, then I don't know what is. Perhaps the next president should learn from MacDonald's example.

Another example of bipartisan cooperation occurred on U.S. soil. President Lincoln's efforts to preserve the union started with his efforts to build a multi-partisan cabinet. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin detailed President Lincoln's famously unusual cabinet in her book Team of Rivals. Made up of Republicans, Democrats, and Whigs, its chief members were Lincoln's presidential primary opponents, still bitter about their defeat but willing to sacrifice pride to save the union. Lincoln shrewdly understood that he had to put aside personal and political differences in order to solve the country's crisis.

Of his bipartisan cabinet, Lincoln told the Chicago Tribune: "We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services."

Both McCain and Obama are intelligent, confident, and independent leaders. Both have, at times, promised bipartisanship.

During the primary season, Obama expressed his intention to appoint Republicans to his cabinet, such as Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana.

During an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" on September 7, McCain said he would give Democrats vital roles in his cabinet, but he did not go into detail about how many or for what positions.

"The way you restore [confidence in government] is obviously to have a very bipartisan approach," he said.

Stephen Buel, editor of the alternative newsweekly East Bay Express, would like to see this happen. He named both Hagel and Lugar as good choices for an Obama administration, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a good choice for either administration.

Jim Eyer, an Alameda County Libertarian running for Congress in California's 9th District, does not believe a bipartisan cabinet would be going far enough. He would like to see Greens and Libertarians in the next president's cabinet.

"Having only two prominent political parties does not serve us well. There are several reasons, including too little competition, too much going along to get along, and too much power for party organizations," he said.

Immediate former chairman of the California Republican Party, Duf Sundheim, pointed out that the founding fathers did not anticipate the development of political parties and noted that third parties have played an important role in the past and will again in the future.

Whether bipartisan or multi-partisan, the best minds in the country must craft multi-faceted solutions through serious discussion to address the crises facing our nation today. The next president should assemble a bipartisan or multi-partisan cabinet not to proclaim that they are reaching across the aisle, but because the problems and threats facing the United States, as well as the damage inflicted by the partisanship of the Bush administration, demand it. There is too much at stake to pursue single-minded agendas. Beyond that, the American people deserve better.

Only time will tell for certain how if either candidate will actually include members from the opposition party in their cabinet. If the growing number of self-described Independents is any indication, Americans want to see Democrats and Republicans working together cooperatively in the best interests of the people they are elected to represent, which is their job after all.