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William S. Becker Headshot

Obama 2.0: A Coalition Government?

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As Barack Obama found during his first term, it's nearly impossible to move America forward when everyone pulls in different directions. He might be able to do something about that as he shapes the team for his second term.

How? The president could appoint members of the rational wing of the Republican Party to key positions in his Cabinet -- not a token Republican or two, but a sufficient number in influential positions to create a coalition of moderates in his administration.

Why? In addition to demonstrating his willingness to work with the other side, and in addition to the benefits of diverse perspectives on his team, Obama would boost the status of Republican moderates in a party that has allowed itself to be defined by its irrational and irascible members.

Obama certainly has no obligation to save the Republican Party from itself, but he acknowledges his responsibility to try to bring the country together. His appointment of moderate Republicans to positions of influence could help them take back control of the GOP -- an outcome that would be good for the country if it reopened the door to bipartisan problem-solving. Obama would, of course, remain the decider and the CEO who can give members of his team "more time to spend with their families" when necessary.

As Republicans soul-search about why their party lost the presidential election, they are compiling a long list of excuses: They've failed to adjust to America's changing demographics; Mitt Romney got caught by the 47 percent video; Ohio didn't like his position on bailing out the auto industry; and Mother Nature, who Republicans have always suspected of being a Democrat, sent Hurricane Sandy to cast an early ballot for Obama.

But there may have been another factor at work: The Romney-Ryan ticket offered voters a presidential candidate who shifted his positions to fit his audiences and a vice-presidential candidate who exemplified intransigence. In that kind of relationship, intransigence wins.

Paul Ryan is said to be a favorite of the Tea Party largely because as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he wouldn't compromise to reach a budget deal with the Obama Administration. He emerged as a leader of the GOP's "my way or the highway" caucus, an approach to legislating that is alienating voters and driving moderates out of Congress.

During the last two years under Republican control, the House of Representatives has become a playground for the Far-Out Right. Rep. Todd Akin serves on the science committee in the current Congress -- the same Akin who invented the concept of "legitimate rape." Akin was defeated for reelection, but some are speculating that he might be resurrected as a "champion of the religious right."

The ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works -- the panel that overseas the Environmental Protection Agency and federal climate policy -- is Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma senator who continues to dismiss global warming as a hoax. A large and growing majority of American voters don't share that view.

Irrationality in the GOP tent extends beyond Congress. There was Donald Trump's ridiculous grandstanding about Obama's birth certificate. Top Republican candidates, including Sarah Palin in 2008 and Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann this year, showed unconditional love for the Tea Party, a group that has tolerated if not encouraged new lows in fear mongering and name-calling. Among other things, Tea Partiers have called Obama a "crypto-Marxist" and a closet Muslim, claimed that Islamic law is taking over America, compared the United States to Nazi Germany, and claimed that Democrats are out to silence free speech.

The National Rifle Association is another model of irrational intransigence in the Republican camp. It reportedly spent $15 million during the 2008 campaign to persuade voters that Obama would take away everyone's guns, ban hunting ammunition and close 90 percent of the nation's gun shops if he became president. When that didn't happen, the NRA reloaded for 2012 and spent another $7.5 million to defeat Obama, claiming he didn't confiscate America's firearms in his first term because he was plotting to do it in his second term.

Obama has seen five mass shootings during his presidency. In answer to a question during the second presidential debate, he said he supported a ban on assault weapons. "Weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don't belong on our streets," he said. The NRA called that an assault on freedom and erroneously implied it would be a general "gun ban."

Other Republicans besides Inhofe deny a variety of scientific findings, disciplines and science-based public policies, as though science and religion are incompatible. Surprisingly, it may be the most educated conservatives who take those positions. The Los Angeles Times printed this report on a study published in the American Sociological Review:

"Right-wing think tanks, funded by corporate interests to undermine the scientific consensus on such expensive-to-fix phenomena as climate change, have proliferated, as have conservative cable-TV networks, blogs and radio talk shows. In general, these outlets are talking to a well-educated audience. And they're presenting a very one-sided view of scientific issues. The results are dramatic. In 1974, people who identified themselves as conservatives were the most likely group to have a high degree of trust in science; now they're the least trustful... Conservatives, ever wary of government interference with the free market, started to resent the scientists whose findings suggested such interference was necessary. Rather than debate remedies, they have turned on science itself."

Some Republicans think New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie helped elect Obama by praising the president's response to Sandy just before the election. In reality, Christie produced one of the more reassuring moments in the campaign when he demonstrated that nonpartisanship still is possible.

If we use the willingness to confront global climate change as a litmus test, rational Republicans include former New Jersey governor and EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman; former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina and former Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, who both lost reelection to Tea Party favorites; Utah's former Gov. Jon Huntsman; California's former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Sen. Susan Collins and outgoing Sen. Olympia Snowe, both of Maine; U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey; and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. They should be on Obama's short list for appointments to his administration.

In his post-election analysis, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol said, "Republicans have some Tea Party problems and some establishment problems and, basically, they should get away from either maniacally defending the establishment or maniacally defending the Tea Party."

John McCain's daughter Meghan tweeted this advice for the party's future: "Moderate Republicans can help change minds from the inside out. This party can evolve with the times."

The times require trans-partisan solutions at the potentially productive middle ground of our politics. That's the kind of evolution we all should believe in.