The Magazine

Supposing Obama Were a Bipartisan

What then?

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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(2)   Obama should reappoint Robert Gates secretary of defense. By putting the Department of Defense on a steady course after the volatile Rumsfeld years, Gates has earned the respect and admiration of the uniformed military and the Pentagon. In an area where Obama has little experience, reappointing Gates would show that he recognizes that he is a wartime president and that he stands to benefit from a seasoned veteran with a distinguished track record who could lend continuity to national security during a period of transition.

(3)   Obama's first appointment to the Supreme Court should be a judge's judge, a Democrat no doubt, but one who commands the respect of conservative court watchers. By virtue of his knowledge of the law and his judicial temperament and integrity, Merrick Garland, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit appointed by Bill Clinton in 1997, comes to mind.

(4)   Obama should institute a practice of regular consultation with members of Congress, including Republicans, perhaps inviting them to the White House once a month to compare notes and exchange views. On the campaign trail, Obama promised something similar, saying he would "call for a standing, bipartisan Consultative Group of congressional leaders on national security." This is a good start, but meetings with both parties' legislators should not be limited to national security. Such meetings cost little, provide the opportunity to build good will and understanding, and can contribute to setting that new tone in Washington of which candidates every four years speak.

(5)   Obama, who has touted his support for charter schools, should endorse school choice. Certainly in inner cities where public schools have for decades been broken and have proven resistant to reform, Obama should favor efforts to provide low-income parents with the means to send their children to schools where they actually have the chance to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.

(6)   Obama should clearly state his opposition to reviving the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senators Dick Durbin and Charles Schumer have called for. Conservatives see it as a thinly veiled effort to suppress conservative talk-radio by demanding that stations that feature conservative stars such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh provide the left with equal opportunities to broadcast their views. Even if the measure has little chance of passing, conservatives would appreciate Obama's explicit rejection of it. This is not only because it is aimed at a conservative advantage, but also because as conceived it invites an appalling and unconstitutional regulation of political speech by Congress. It is one thing to require radio and TV stations, which broadcast over public airwaves, to give opposing candidates a fair chance to express their views. It is quite another to put government in the business of determining what sort of programming would balance Hannity and Limbaugh, which, in fairness, would also require government to determine what sort would balance NPR.

(7)   Obama should call on public universities to abolish campus speech codes and vigorously protect students' and faculty members' speech rights. By doing this Obama would score big with conservatives. He would also position progressives where they belong: on the side of free speech, vigorous debate, impartial inquiry, and openness to opposing points of view.

Although nothing in these proposals violates fundamental progressive tenets, all would undoubtedly irritate or anger one Democratic party constituency or another. Nevertheless, by adopting them, Obama would show that he is a man of his word who believes what he has emphatically said about bridging divides and uniting in common efforts by listening to conservatives and enlisting their support.

More than that, adopting these proposals would also serve the public. Coming from a Democrat in the White House, it would send the message to conservatives and progressives alike that, for all their genuine differences of opinion, left and right in America share important interests and fundamental principles and, by working together, can bring about change that both sides can believe in.

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.