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A MESSAGE FROM THE FUTURE

Imagining the impossible — a government of national unity in the US

Imagining the impossible — a government of national unity in the US
From left: US President Joe Biden (Photo: Chris Kleponis / CNP / Bloomberg) | Republican presidential candidate, former president Donald Trump (Photo: Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

What might be sufficient to trigger a government of national unity in the US, confronting the country’s challenges, uncertainties and malaise? Echoing Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, we consider a message in a bottle from the future that offers one possible political journey.

The US’s primary elections have not yet run their course. That vast, multiple-state Super Tuesday primary on 5 March is now upon us, and, of course, there are still other primaries after Super Tuesday. Nonetheless, the choices of the presidential candidates from the two major parties are already virtually certain. 

Democrats will, somewhat reluctantly for some would-be supporters, go with their incumbent president, Joe Biden, in the absence of any feasible alternative. This is despite his age and his apparent unpopularity in national polls.

Meanwhile, many Republicans will roll their eyes heavenward in exasperation, and a significant share of those will continue to support Nikki Haley. But, inevitably, a majority of that party will go along with the choice of Donald Trump, based on their visceral dislike of the current president, his vice-president and their policies. This seems to be true even as Trump faces dozens of indictment counts for federal and state trials.

Fortunately, here at Daily Maverick, we have received a message in a bottle from the future as a result of a momentary temporal displacement of that fabled space-time continuum. We opened the container and found a flash drive inside it. 

Over the weekend, we studied the contents on that flash drive carefully (Macs are a wonderful tool for opening almost everything) to read about some extraordinary future events. Here we share these descriptions with our readers in the spirit echoing Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showing Ebenezer Scrooge the fate of Bob Cratchit’s family.

And so, here we go, drawing from the imagined information on that flash drive.…

A script for national unity

By late August, the US’s two major parties will have completed the various primaries and then their respective presidential nominating conventions. The Republicans met from the 15th through the 18th of July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the Democrats in Chicago, from the 19th through to the 22nd of August. 

While there were protests in Chicago over the president’s policies towards the still-continuing, horrific fighting in the Middle East, they were not on the scale of what happened at the infamous 1968 convention in Chicago. There were also protests at the Milwaukee convention over the Republican Party’s policies about reproductive rights and awkward positions over in-vitro fertilisation. Nevertheless, the two conventions ultimately confirmed both nominations.

Actually, the presidential campaign between the two men had effectively already been going on for several months — given the certainty of who would be nominated. Still, speculation remained about who would be the vice-presidential running mates. Meanwhile, the increasingly angry, vitriolic exchanges between the two presidential candidates became increasingly angry and vitriolic. 

US Vice President Kamala Harris (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

While some Democrats were increasingly concerned about Kamala Harris’s low polling numbers and continuing popular worries about her readiness to step up in the event of the disability of the 81-year-old president, she and the president were renominated by their party’s convention. This came despite a brief but abortive floor fight over delegate credentials led by several congressmen and women incensed by the administration’s Israel/Gaza policies. 

Earlier, in Milwaukee, Donald Trump was nominated as well. This was despite Nikki Haley’s name also being placed in nomination by the small group of delegates she had won over the course of the various primaries (some states apportion primary delegates based on vote percentage while others do not, so that although she only won one primary outright, she had assembled a small but enthusiastic cohort of delegates). As a result, their convention had moments of high drama (especially for television networks and online streaming) when several delegates pledged to Trump rose on points of order to accuse Haley of being a false Republican — or even a secret catspaw for Biden or worse. 

Fistfights

The ensuing booing and catcalls overwhelmed the convention chair’s ability to control the session for several minutes and at least two fistfights broke out among the delegates after one delegate’s head was struck by one of those state name placards. The resulting bloodshed was captured in a memorable photograph that appeared around the world on the front pages of newspapers, especially since it was a slow news day elsewhere, despite several ongoing wars. 

Ultimately, Trump’s selection of South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, as his running mate prevailed, despite yet more disruptions, this time instigated by Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, presumably because her own insurgent challenge for that nomination had been defeated. Eventually, security guards escorted the congresswoman off the plenary session floor as there were yet more catcalls and several persons were injured by flying debris.

Given the acrimony that was growing exponentially in the public discourse, the Commission of Presidential Debates — the non-partisan, non-governmental body that administered the quadrennial presidential debates — stepped up to try to put a brake on any further downward slide of the nation’s public rhetoric. They proposed having a presidential debate take place almost immediately after the Republican convention — before any further damage to the public interest and national good occurred.

It was decided that for this debate all rules and speaking times would be strictly enforced. There would be no on-stage bickering, hectoring, or insults, let alone threatening gestures. The assembled crowd, selected by lot from applicants, would be instructed to only applaud after a candidate’s speeches or responses were concluded. Both candidates and their campaign organisations agreed.

The debate was set for 23 August, immediately after the annual mid-August Iowa State Fair, in Des Moines. The Iowa State Fair was felt to be evocative of the style of solid values as well as personal politeness and the hope that those values would rub off on the debaters. Specifically, it was set to take place in the famous livestock judging arena on a specially built stage platform (constructed as the fair was wrapping up and the Democratic convention was over). Naturally, the venue was decorated with the customary red, white, and blue bunting, flags, and all the other usual patriotic decorations. Television, audio, and IT cables had all been hastily installed. A few snaked across the edges of the stage but were taped down carefully.

And then, just as the debate was to begin, it happened.

A shocking sound

As the challenger, Donald Trump stepped out on to the stage first and took his position behind his podium. Then, as the incumbent president briskly walked up the five steps to the stage from the floor of the arena, perhaps his heel had caught on a bit of loose fringe of bunting or perhaps snagged on a cable that had not been completely taped down. Regardless, the president tripped and fell heavily.

The sound of his skull hitting the floor silenced the room — and certainly did the same to audiences around the world on television networks and streaming services. An emergency team rushed forward to give first aid, but from the force of the fall, the president had already slipped into unconsciousness. At that moment, Trump burst into a fit of uncontrolled laughter so sustained that the emergency team was now confronted with a double disaster. As he was laughing, the challenger appeared to suffer a stroke or cerebral incident, triggered by that behaviour.

First, ambulances, then a pre-positioned medevac helicopter and the presidential helicopter, Marine One, were pressed into duty as the two men were rushed from the arena to Des Moines’ most comprehensively equipped hospital.

When these events happened, in accordance with the Presidential Disability Act and the governing constitutional amendment, Vice-President Harris was immediately alerted and she assumed the powers of the president within minutes of the terrifying events in Iowa. Given the conditions in Ukraine and the Near East, her first order as acting president was to place the military on a higher defence status alert.

Then, the leaders of the US’s major allies were informed of the specific circumstances by the White House chief of staff, and the Israeli prime minister and leaders in various other Near Eastern nations were called by the secretary of state. Calls by the acting president were made to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. The plan was to encourage them not to see the tragedy as a moment where US leadership was at issue. Ominously, the calls were not immediately answered.

Meanwhile, the Republican speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, was also contacted by the White House’s chief of staff to inform him of the specifics in the event of yet another presidential transition — should something happen to the vice-president. This was because the speaker was next in the line of succession, after the vice-president. All of these contacts had taken only a few minutes, but, already, the news — the events in Des Moines happened before an audience of hundreds of millions — meant global exchanges and currency values were in turmoil, especially since trading was no longer limited to the exchanges’ opening hours.

Beyond all of this activity, various party leaders were already consulting one another through telephone calls, WhatsApps, emails, and other communications about what these events would mean for the approaching election. 

Among Republicans, despite the broad prevalence of Maga loyalties, there was a quickly growing realisation that Governor Noem was simply not ready to lead the party into the general election in November, assuming the party’s presidential nominee could no longer campaign. 

Noem’s national visibility was less than widespread; her experience with foreign policy issues was minimal; and her relationships with major donors were similarly limited. Meanwhile, among Democrats, a parallel murmuring about the party’s chances in November with Vice-President Harris at the top of a ticket similarly was gaining traction.

An extraordinary sequence of events

In light of the day’s unprecedented events, it was a column the next day by George Will, a political observer and commentator who had watched US politics for more than half a century, that started the ball rolling for an extraordinary sequence of events. Will wrote in his weekly column, “…the times were now sufficiently perilous that national unity and resolve went well beyond the needs and primal urges of party allegiance.

“Instead, circumstances demanded loyalty to national safety and security, through the elevation of distinguished, experienced leadership and statesmanlike stature and competence…. In the Truman administration, in the years after the end of World War 2, in the face of an increasingly belligerent, unrelenting Soviet Union, the two parties had come together to achieve the Marshall Plan and Nato.” 

In contemplating an appropriate response to the events in Des Moines, Will pointed to a precedent from more than 50 years ago for switching nominees after a nominating convention had concluded its tasks. In 1972, Will reminded his readers, when it became known that Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy years ago, he was removed as Senator George McGovern’s running mate and replaced by former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver (a Kennedy in-law). Nevertheless, McGovern lost decisively to Ronald Reagan. Moreover, on several occasions, one candidate had been endorsed by multiple parties — usually minor third-party ones.

Will’s core idea resonated with others. A roster of media heavyweights as varied as The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, Maureen Dowd, Thomas L Friedman, Susan Collins, Frank Bruni, Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks all came on board with supportive columns, urging the national interest and security trumped party loyalty as the urgent need, now. 

CNN stalwarts including Fareed Zakaria, Jake Tapper, Christiane Amanpour, and Chris Wallace and his coterie of regular panellists weighed in positively as well, along with David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart on PBS’s Friday NewsHour. (Fox News commentators were rather more reluctant about the idea of some kind of national unity ticket, but they refused to dismiss it entirely.) 

The Washington Post, in a very unusual front-page editorial, endorsed Will’s comments. And so did The Economist, going beyond commiserating with the families of the two nominees over the tragic medical circumstances of their respective loved ones, in its two-page leader, available quickly online and then in the next print edition. Collectively all of these voices underscored the need for the US to act with alacrity in service of a united national interest.

Similar comments quickly began coming from newspapers all across the West, as well as from Japan’s two leading mass distribution dailies, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun, and Nikkei, the Japanese daily comparable to The Wall Street Journal. In an unsurprising dissenting voice, however, North Korea’s national news agency opined it did not matter who ran the US, “…they are still simply tools of an evil capitalist cabal eager to begin a war on the Korean Peninsula that they will inevitably lose.”  

While Putin issued no comments over the events, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky was widely quoted by international radio broadcasters saying he hoped a US government of national unity would complete pledges to help re-arm his hard-pressed military. Meanwhile, a slightly confused South African national network, the SABC, urged a US caretaker government until new elections could be scheduled, linking that to the suggestion that President Cyril Ramaphosa should use his good offices to facilitate such arrangements.

A new approach

Somehow, while no one took public responsibility for initiating it, a conversation began to take shape among leading figures in the two parties that a new approach was needed to steady the US political system. The two parties’ conventions — or at least committees of the state chairpersons — would need to be convened, and, at that point, a joint candidacy would be proposed for immediate electronic ratification by all the delegations. 

But who could issue such a formal call and who could they possibly propose as candidates? Ultimately, it was a letter issued jointly by former presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama, and cosigned by former power brokers such as David Gergen, James Baker, James Carville and David Axelrod, that made the idea into an explicit proposal. 

In part, the letter, published in more than 200 newspapers nationally, said, “…the time for politics as usual is over. Decisively. It is now time to pursue a uniquely American-style government of national unity that will bring the best minds, the right mix of experience, the skills of people well-acquainted with the world as it is to the fore….” 

It went on to call for both national party committees to convene a special session of state chairs to select a presidential and vice-presidential nominee acceptable to both parties and then nominate them jointly — and quickly. The election would thus become a ratifying referendum of this plan. Of course, third parties could, if they so chose, affiliate to this plan — or even run their own candidates if they so chose. 

After some back and forth, the two rump conventions settled on a unity ticket of Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney and Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. (Not surprisingly, several governors and senators from both parties tried to float their own trial balloons for these nominations but the process held.) Romney was obviously experienced at the craft of government, as well as in economics and business, and, as a former (albeit defeated) presidential candidate, he was believed to be sufficiently acceptable to a broad swathe of US citizens.

united states romney

Former Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney. (Photo: Reuters / Brian Snyder)

Some Republican hardliners were less enthusiastic, seeing Romney as someone who exemplified the epithet of being a Rino — a “Republican in name only”. Whitmer was also viewed as extremely well-versed in the management of economic growth in rebuilding a Rust Belt state and as someone ultra-competent for driving such efforts nationally. 

Despite unhappy groans from both the left and right, a consensus view was quickly hardening that this time, it would have to be nation over politics — and this was the best road to follow. Not surprisingly, the incumbent vice-president/acting president, Kamala Harris, was less than enthusiastic about the plan, although her view began to shift when it became clear she would be the consensus nominee for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court, and that congressional leadership of both parties were on board for the plan.

Opposition did come from the totally-for-Trump (even in the absence of Trump) wing of the Republicans who quickly began jostling for new candidates who would run under the banner of the Libertarian Party. That was crucial since that party was already set to be on the ballot in most states. They settled on Senator Josh Hawley and Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene as their presidential and vice-presidential candidates. 

On the other side of the divide, a group of disgruntled progressive Democrats reached out to the Green Party and offered to unite with them in nominating one of “The Squad” congresswomen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Dr Jill Stein. The former would have reached the age of presidential qualification — 35 — a month before the election, and she was a nationally recognisable “commodity.” Stein, a veteran campaigner under the Green Party banner, agreed to be her running mate, despite her long history in that party, in the interest of making the strongest possible run for votes.

The 2024 election clearly was one for the history books, with the only possible rival being the 1860 election when there were four major candidates. In the end, the consensus ticket of Romney and Whitmer won convincingly, carrying every state except three southern states and one Rocky Mountain state. In the popular vote, the national unity ticket gained just under 70% of the votes, while the two splinter parties gained 20% and 10% respectively. This decisive moment’s voting had closely paralleled the predictions of reputable polling operations. 

And the world turned…

Despite all this, the world did not stand still while Americans sorted out their domestic agonies. The war in Ukraine continued to drag on with growing and horrendous losses of life, property and treasure. The Near East crisis remained unresolved as Israelis continued to grind their way through Gaza, searching for the last remaining groups of Hamas fighters. The grand bargain that had been pushed by Biden now stalled while fighting continued, although Hezbollah and Houthi rocket launches were put on pause by the group’s primary sponsor, a nervous Iran, itself wobbly from the results of its electoral processes. 

Meanwhile, though, China carried out a massive amphibious military exercise, landing on the Fujian coast of China, in a major simulation of what could be done against Taiwan any time it wished. The intention, apparently, was to make sure any new US political landscape continued to keep in mind there was some unfinished business in East Asia. 

With all the uncertainty and unprecedented events, the air in the economy significantly slackened in the US and beyond, stock markets globally remained dangerously unsteady, and the first polls after the election found the US populace was seriously uncertain whether this domestic grand bargain would be sufficient to reassure the country and restore trust in government. 

Back in that hospital in Iowa, while Trump had died just before the election, the disabled president remained in a coma. A private funeral was planned by Trump’s family. Doctors constantly monitored both the monitors attached to the president to determine whether he would return to consciousness, or if a “do not resuscitate” order would need to come into play.

Unfortunately, the data from that bottle do not go beyond the week after the election, so the future remains dark. This is a great movie script, yes? DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Now what about a script where Liz Cheyney steps in as an Independent with Bidens recommendation on his retirement! I recon she will get the full support of the conservative Right and the Left! Oh to dream …..( and it stops us from focusing on our own forthcoming election! )

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