In Steven Spielberg’s beautifully acted new movie, a controversial president, who is either loved or hated, has just been re-elected and faces a divided Congress in the midst of a national emergency. One of the standouts in Lincoln is a conscience-stricken Democratic congressman named George Yeaman. The Kentucky representative agonizes over whether to rise above partisanship and vote for the 13th Amendment. How Lincoln gets Democrats, and even some fellow Republicans, to do the right thing is the guts of the movie.
Our problems today pale in significance to those faced by Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, President Obama faces a historic challenge in persuading an opposition party off its partisan ledge to avoid a national calamity; in this case, heading over a “fiscal cliff,” meaning a series of dramatic, automatic spending cuts that few people actually want and which would certainly stymie sensible government. Lincoln confronted the challenge in his day by making a moral and patriotic appeal and, when that did not work, by offering jobs—good, old-fashioned patronage.
The fracturing of the Republican Party’s Reagan coalition offers President Obama a number of opportunities. As a number of GOP analysts have noted since the election—most notably Alex Castellanos—the party has to retool to match the changing demographics of the country. If there was any doubt, today’s column by Charles Krauthammer on the need to embrace amnesty for illegal immigrants suggests that that the GOP brand is in flux.
In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt took advantage of a similar crisis among his opposition, which was divided between interventionists and isolationists, to restaff his national security team with high-profile Republicans. Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state, and Frank Knox, the publisher of the Chicago Daily News who had run against Roosevelt on the GOP ticket with Alf Landon in 1936, joined FDR’s Cabinet as secretary of war and secretary of the Navy. They then recruited younger men like John McCloy, Robert Lovett, and James Forrestal, none of whom thought much of the New Deal but all of whom were disappointed in their own party’s failure to come to grips with the international emergency. The country benefited as well as these men, especially the young Republicans, who were later known as “the Wise Men.”
The modern-day equivalents of the “interventionist” Republicans of the 1940s are members of the GOP who believe that government can be a force for good, but that it ought to be more efficient and effective. These are the Republicans who stood behind President George H.W. Bush and supported the budget compromise of 1990, which together with President Bill Clinton’s policies (and the collapse of the Soviet Union) created the economic boom and the budget surpluses of the 1990s. These “Good Government” Republicans don’t win elections much anymore—because they cannot survive GOP primaries—but they did not disappear from the face of the earth.
Since our current emergency is economic, is it not the right moment for President Obama to create a bipartisan domestic war Cabinet? Secretary Timothy Geithner has wanted to leave the Treasury Department for some time. Were Obama to select a high-profile Republican who believes in a balanced approach to deficit reduction and recognizes (as did Mitt Romney in the second debate) that a free market needs some government regulation to work, the public would quickly tire of the bickering of House Republicans. The “no new taxes” purists would be marginalized. In addition, President Obama, who believes in lower corporate taxes and domestic job growth, would be helped by adding a Republican secretary of commerce, perhaps a businessperson. Who better to smooth over the restiveness among some small business owners, who will now have to live with Obamacare, than a Republican CEO?