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Bipartisan cabinets have mixed track record

Appointing two prominent Republicans to top positions in his Cabinet was a smart move for Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.  Should Barack Obama follow suit?
Image:  Sen. Richard Lugar; Sen. Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., at a 2007 press conference at the Capitol with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.Alex Wong / Getty Images file
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Three days before he won the presidential election, Sen. Barack Obama stood in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, and told a crowd of supporters, "We need to get beyond the old ideological debates that divide us between left and right."

And what better way to get beyond that ideological divide than for Obama to have a Republican, or maybe a few of them, serve in his Cabinet?

True, there are some Republicans who will probably never make it to the table. It would be a shock if Obama brought a conservative like Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina into his inner circle.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is also likely out of the running. He mocked Obama's work as a community organizer in his speech to the GOP convention.

But a centrist or consensus-minded Republican could show up in the Obama administration.

The model here is William Cohen, the moderate Republican senator from Maine, who Bill Clinton asked to serve as defense secretary in 1997. Cohen earned a bipartisan reputation for his outspoken criticism of President Reagan's policies.

If Obama does appoint Republicans to his Cabinet as a gesture of bipartisanship, history shows that such picks do not always bridge party divides.

For example, having a Republican as his defense secretary didn't help Clinton when a GOP-controlled House voted to impeach him in 1998.

After Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq on the eve of his impeachment vote, Cohen was forced to convince congressional leaders that the president wasn’t trying to divert attention away from his own troubles.

Possible candidates
Names of prominent Republicans being bruited about town in Washington this week include Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind. Either man could serve as secretary of state or secretary of defense.

Another Republican who comes to mind is former Iowa congressman Jim Leach, who once served in the Foreign Service and has expertise in relations with China. Leach addressed the Democratic convention in Denver last summer as a prominent Republican supporter of Obama.

Obama announced Wednesday that he was appointing Leach, as well as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to meet with delegations at this weekend’s G-20 summit in Washington.

Last March, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now the vice president-elect, said “it would be a good idea” to have Hagel and Lugar in an Obama Cabinet.

“They’re both extremely competent," Biden told me in an interview. "If I had gotten elected, I would have considered Lugar to be secretary of state and I would have been happy to have Chuck Hagel — one of the finest guys I’ve ever known in politics — to be in the administration. It is time to reach across the aisle. It is time to have a government to end this bitter partisanship. So I think they’re both good ideas.”

Dramatic move by Roosevelt
Appointing two prominent Republicans to top positions in his Cabinet was a smart move for Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in June of 1940.

When Roosevelt appointed Republican Henry Stimson as Secretary of War and Republican Frank Knox as Navy Secretary, his timing was dramatic — Republicans were about to begin their national convention to pick a nominee to face him in the November election.

France had just fallen to Hitler’s armies and it seemed that England would soon fall as well, leaving the United States alone as the world’s only large democratic republic.

Knox had been the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1936. Stimson had served in the Cabinets of two Republican presidents, as William Howard Taft’s secretary of war and as Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state.

Stimson said he was willing to serve under Democrat Roosevelt because America was in “a time of national crisis.”

The critics charged that Stimson and Knox were appointed only to bring Republican votes over to Roosevelt’s side in the 1940 election.

'A devious political mind'
Stimson said in his memoirs that Republicans saw his appointment as “the product of a devious political mind,” labeling it as scheme perpetrated by Roosevelt to divide and demoralize the GOP.

The chairman of the Republican National Committee kicked Stimson out of the party.

Stimson became Roosevelt’s trusted advisor and led the military after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II in 1941.

Other presidents have sought to give their administration a bipartisan flavor by appointing members of the opposing party to their Cabinets.

In 1969, at a time when no other liberal Democrat would have dreamed of working for the newly elected Richard Nixon, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard University sociologist and former Kennedy administration official, agreed to serve as his domestic policy counselor.

It wasn’t a Cabinet post, but it made news, because Moynihan defied his fellow Democrats by serving President Nixon, who most Democrats loathed.

Moynihan had a mixed record in the Nixon administration: His welfare reform plan failed in Congress, but he later did useful work as ambassador to India.

Another Democrat who worked for Nixon was former Texas governor John Connolly, whom Nixon appointed as secretary of the Treasury Department in 1970.

Connolly was an ardent advocate of the administration’s $300 million bailout for Lockheed Aircraft. In 1971 Nixon pondered replacing Vice President Spiro Agnew with Connolly as his running mate, but in the end bowed to Agnew’s popularity among Republicans.

Neither Moynihan nor Connolly were able to assuage liberal Democrats’ hatred of Nixon. Partisanship remained intense, and grew even more toxic after the Watergate scandal.

He liked Ike — and Kennedy too
In 1960, the newly elected John F. Kennedy picked Wall Street investment banker and Republican campaign contributor C. Douglas Dillon as his secretary of the treasury.

Dillon had served in Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s administration as ambassador to France and as a State Department official. He had contributed heavily to the presidential campaign of Nixon, the man Kennedy defeated in 1960.

Despite this, Kennedy admired Dillon, and he became one of the Democrat's most influential advisors.

But crossing party lines to pick a Cabinet member sometimes leads to an unhappy end.

In 1952, Eisenhower chose Martin Durkin of Chicago, head of the Journeyman Plumbers and Steamfitters Union, to be his labor secretary.

Durkin was the sole Democrat in a blue-chip Republican Cabinet. “Ike has picked a Cabinet of eight millionaires and one plumber,” said one columnist in the New Republic.

By trying to make labor law more friendly to union members, Durkin clashed with Eisenhower’s other appointees. When Ike rejected his proposals, Durkin quit after only nine months on the job.

Some ideological divides are just too big for bipartisanship to bridge.