On Nov. 6, 1968, Richard Nixon declared victory in a narrow win over then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, with a margin of less than 1 percent and little more than 500,000 votes out of 85 million cast. The nation seemed irreparably divided – ideologically, culturally, generationally.
During his victory speech that night, Nixon recalled seeing a hand-scrawled sign – “Bring us together” – during an early-evening rally in the small town of Deshler, Ohio. Nixon later invited the youngster who held that sign, 13-year-old Vicki Lynn Cole, to attend his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1969, and to ride on a special float in the inaugural parade.
Unfortunately, Nixon quickly returned to his default position, didn’t refer to the sign in his inauguration speech, and governed as president much as Donald Trump has, by exacerbating America’s divisions rather than healing them.
And now comes President-elect Biden, facing perhaps worse divisions than Nixon, fueled by a chasm of red state/blue state voters with hate on both sides. Can he possibly bring us together? The answer is, “Yes.”
I have known Joe Biden since early 1973, his first months as Delaware’s then new U.S. senator. I know he can do so not by reinventing himself but by being Joe Biden.
For 36 years, before he became vice president, Biden represented a state made up of large numbers of conservative, rural, working-class voters. When he was a kid, he lived in Scranton, Pa., with mostly white, non-college-educated working-class neighbors, many of whom voted for Trump in 2016 but switched to Biden in 2020.
Biden can govern by reminding us of the four issues he campaigned on that can bridge the gap – not by ignoring the differences among people with deep feelings but by reminding them that they can act in their self-interest, in common with those with different political views.
First, the pandemic: Biden must immediately nullify the false Trumpian choice of denying science and ignoring the COVID-19 pandemic vs. opening up the economy and putting people back to work. Biden can show us the third way. He can prove that we can both follow the science (e.g., masking, social-distancing and massively distributing vaccines) while still reopening our economy and our schools safely, step by step.
Second, Biden can prove that the fight to address climate change and save our planet is also about creating tens of millions of new jobs in energy renewal industries – in solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric generation and other technologies. These will be new jobs not only for college-educated Biden Democrats but for working families in Appalachian coal country, in farm country and rural America, and in Midwestern rust-belt communities where old-industry manufacturing jobs are disappearing and the sense of being left behind is pervasive.
Third, Biden should propose a national “Marshall Plan” for infrastructure. He can use public-private sector partnerships to do so, such as a national infrastructure bank financed by private capital and public subsidies. He can prove that private enterprise partnering with government can do good and do well at the same time – just as Robert Kennedy, Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan all proved in previous decades with private enterprise zones in inner-city neighborhoods. And as part of this new infrastructure Marshall Plan, Biden can reinvent national public service programs for young people to work on these projects and for seniors to tutor students in rural and inner-city schools – in other words, Biden’s own version of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) on the environment and Works Progress Administration (WPA) on public works, LBJ’s VISTA and Job Corps programs, and Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps.
Finally, and perhaps most important, Biden needs to stand for guaranteed, affordable national health care. Most polls show remarkable majority support for exactly what Biden proposed in his campaign: a step-by-step approach. On ObamaCare, provide a public option and then fix it. On Medicaid, expand it, as many Trump-leaning rural Americans need and want. On Medicare, expand it, as progressives want, with a goal of “Medicare for All,” similar to every Western democracy in the world except for the U.S. And all of this can be done without necessarily abolishing individual choice for Americans, if they wish to use their own doctors or continue with their private insurance plans.
It doesn’t have to be Trump’s politics of division. It doesn’t have to be Washington’s too-common partisan gridlock. There is a third choice: Joe Biden’s way. In the final analysis, Biden should remind us that the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) had it exactly right when he declared, “We are better than this.” Or, in the words of his friend, President Obama, whom he served so well as vice president: “Yes we can.”
Lanny Davis is co-founder of both the Washington law firm Davis Goldberg Galper PLLC and of Trident DMG, a strategic media firm specializing in crisis management. He served as special counsel to President Clinton in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by the 9/11 Commission. He is the author of “The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency” (2018).