Opinion

By Following Lincoln’s Example, Biden Can Unite America During the COVID-19 Crisis

By Jason Pack
March 18, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

As the spread of coronavirus and the evolving governmental response has dominated the news cycle, the unprecedented developments in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries — including postponements — have been relegated to an afterthought in the national consciousness.

During this unfolding crisis of unknowable proportions, voters have successfully quarantined panic — keeping it away from the voting booths and relegating it primarily to the supermarket. Over the last three weeks, communities of every stripe have expressed their desire for leadership, unity, civility and a safe (and clean) pair of hands.

Joe Biden is merely the vessel for this message. The main tenets of his candidacy are no longer his to set. The American people have tasked him with a sacred duty — to restore the American project to its former course and to showcase what genuine crisis leadership should look like.  He hears the people’s concerns. In turn, he has transformed his messaging: focusing on national unity and the constitution in his poignant speech in Philadelphia on March 10, the role of presidential leadership in responding to the coronavirus in his  Delaware speech on March 12, and on the need for solutions, not revolution in his CNN debate with Bernie Sanders on Sunday.

Buoyed by scores of prominent endorsements, he has sought to rebrand his candidacy as a broad church of the Democratic Party. Yet, at present, his coalition is not broad enough to win in November. It makes large swaths of young progressives, independents and anti-Trump Republicans feel excluded. To answer the voters’ call, he must go further and unite the whole nation, not merely its center-left. To do so most effectively, he should draw on the most applicable episode of crisis leadership in our national history: Abraham Lincoln’s two presidential runs.

Faced with geographically and racially distinct communities preferring to fight to the death rather than compromise their mutually contradictory world views, Lincoln sought to transcend zero-sum notions of “politics as usual” to preserve our Union. After his successful 1860 presidential run, he forged his famous “team of rivals” Cabinet out of his chief opponents from the Republican Presidential Convention. Then during the 1864 campaign, Lincoln created the National Union Party, and shared its presidential ticket with War Democrat Andrew Johnson. Many Northern and Western Democrats — who might otherwise have opposed Lincoln due to a view that the Republican Party was a radical statist enterprise — were successfully enticed to vote for the “Unity” ticket.

Drawing on this historical episode and foreseeing the dangers of a divisive primary process in the age of Trump, sagacious commentators have long been calling for a national unity ticket. Amplifying Tom Friedman’s version of this proposal, we must now abruptly halt the divisive implications of continued contested primaries, and instead focus on confronting the shared crisis while choreographing the symbolism of the voters’ wishes.

Imagine it is a July evening, a few short months from now. You are one of the over 4,000 delegates who have cancelled their flights and are Skyping in for the first virtual Democratic National Convention.  The day’s technical deliberations are over. The clock strikes 8 p.m. EDT and you turn on MSNBC for the major primetime televised session. After minutes of staring at an empty stage in Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum, all of a sudden, the lights dim and walking onto the stage in unison, you see Vice President Biden, former Mayors Buttigieg and Bloomberg, and Sens. Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar. Behind them you spot Michelle Obama, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, former Gov. John Kasich, Sens. Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, and Oprah Winfrey. Klobuchar approaches the microphone, with the other 11 flagrantly violating social distancing protocol, by holding their intertwined hands above their heads behind her.

She announces that if the delegates on the teleconference line approve, the Democratic Party will be rebranding itself for the 2020 presidential election. In two weeks’ time, back in Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, Joe Biden will be put forth as the presidential candidate of the newly formed National Unity Party – and that everyone currently on stage will be promised a Cabinet position. She explains that in an NUP administration, all major policy decisions, executive orders, and appointments will be made by cabinet majority. She closes her announcement by stating that before September, the NUP will be announcing a female vice presidential candidate in line with Biden’s pledge, and will also be taking the unorthodox step of announcing its complete 25-person cabinet, which will include eight prominent Republican opponents of Trump.

As the confetti streams down, the arena erupts in a deafening standing ovation. You burst into tears. Over the next hours, the image of these seven men and five women – made up of two African-Americans, two Jews, five Catholics, two Hispanics, a Mormon and a gay veteran — spreads virally across social media accompanied by the NUP’s slogan, “United to Save America.”

Viscerally and emotionally, the appeal of national unity should be obvious to anyone who has witnessed the descent of our public sphere over the last four years and fears for our nation’s ability to respond to the current crisis. The image of our major political icons raising their intertwined hands, in defiance of fear, to announce a new way of doing politics would instantly become one of the most iconic images in American history — up there with the moon landing, the storming of Iwo Jima and Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech.”

This moment of national salvation is within reach. Striving for an ever more perfect union is a quintessentially American idea. And moreover, if President Lincoln did it, it can’t be wrong.

Jason Pack is an American historian and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. 

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