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Across Party Lines
By Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, , Sunday, December 17, 2000

In his first address to the nation as President-elect on Wednesday, George W. Bush declared himself a "uniter, not a divider" and declared that after the contentious presidential election it is "time to find common ground." Many see the appointment of a Democrat—or several—to positions of prominence in the new Cabinet as one promising remedy to cauterize recently inflicted political wounds. As the only Republican in a Democratic administration for the past four years, my experience can perhaps be instructive to those on both sides who seek to construct a template of bipartisanship.

First, the appointment of a Democrat to the new administration will only succeed in a sphere where general consensus exists on U.S. policy. When President Clinton asked me to serve as Secretary of Defense four years ago, he made it clear that his intent was to sustain and strengthen the tradition of a bipartisan approach to matters of national security.

It is less certain that such an approach would have succeeded—or could succeed in the future—in an area where deep philosophical or ideological chasms separate the parties. Could a Republican have energetically and effectively implemented a Democratic agenda at the Department of Health and Human Services? Similarly, could a Democrat lead the Department of Education in a Bush Administration in a manner satisfactory to either?

Commerce, Transportation and Energy appear to be agencies where common goals could be envisioned and achieved. Treasury and Justice are more promblematic, although one could argue that an Attorney General who is "independent"—or at least has not been active in partisan politics—might preclude charges that the Justice Department looks at industries or individuals through jaundiced eyes.

Uniformity of opinion is neither an imperative nor an ideal to be sought in any administration. Legitimate debate and well-reasoned disagreement can help ensure that any differences are bridged, rather than papered over, and that policies are not simply the product of predisposition. But attempts to build political consensus where fundamental ideologies collide could prove a prescription for more—not less—government gridlock and political paralysis.

Second, there must be a high and unyielding wall separating politics and policy. While some may scoff at the suggestion that the two can ever be fully segregated, the past four years are revealing. Cabinet members do not surrender their party affiliation upon taking the oath of office. At the time of my nomination, some noted that I previously had disagreed with the President on several national security issues and questioned whether I could serve him effectively.

In fact, any disagreements of policy were settled—as they should be in any administration—behind closed doors. Not once in the past four years has President Clinton or any member of his staff engaged in partisan discussions in my presence. Not once was I asked to engage in activities outside my national security portfolios. A similar commitment in the new administration could help ensure that common principles are not compromised by competing political agendas.

 

Finally, any truly bipartisan policy can only arise from genuine consultation between the Executive and Legislative Branches. This is especially true given the delicate balance of power in the new Congress. None of the legislative accomplishments or successful military operations of the past four years would have been possible without extensive and candid consultations with Congress. Because the administration and Congress worked to narrow political differences and craft legislation supported by both, we achieved the largest sustained increase in defense spending in fifteen years, including the largest increase in military pay and benefits in nearly two decades and funding to sustain significant increases in modernization.

Working with the Congress in a spirit of cooperation, we secured overwhelming support for the Senate’s ratification of both the Chemical Weapons Convention and NATO enlargement, and gained strong Congressional approval for Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China—all major achievements that will continue to enhance U.S. security for decades to come.

The nation has just passed through a remarkable and wrenching chapter in its history, and we should not harbor any illusions that a spirit of accord or reconciliation is now inevitable.

Clearly, any attempt to repair the breach of recent times with the appointment of even several Democrats to a Republican Cabinet would be welcomed. However, if such a move is to fulfill the long-term hopes of those advocating such a course, all those involved—on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in both parties—must reject the corrosive forces of blinding partisanship and rekindle a sense of confidence and faith that transcends party lines. We have a great Republic, and we can keep it, but—as Benjamin Franklin forewarned us—only if we care to keep it.