Today, with a divided nation, many pundits fear that President Obama will prove incapable of keeping us from falling over the economic cliff. Such challenges are not new, and the past may provide prologue for our future.
During the summer of 1788, with the fate of the Constitution and nation hanging in the balance, delegates gathered in Virginia to determine whether the largest state in a divided nation would ratify the Constitution. Without Virginia, the Constitution was doomed.
Throughout the divisive debates in the Virginia ratifying convention, the formation of regional confederacies seemed as likely as the formation of a more perfect union, under the Constitution.
Anti-federalists, opponents of the Constitution, had the upper-hand. They were led by Patrick Henry, whose charisma filled the room. Henry was a respected former governor, one of the great orators of the revolutionary era.
Federalists, proponents of the Constitution, in turn, were led by James Madison, a man of ideas, who spoke so quietly that all present had to strain to hear. Madison appeared ill-suited to the task at hand, but he had ideas, was willing to compromise, and capable of building coalitions.
On a hot and humid day, with tempers on edge, Patrick Henry rose, looked heavenward and declared, "[Madison] tells you of important blessings, which he imagines will result to us and mankind in general from the adoption of this system. I see the awful immensity of the dangers with which it is pregnant. I see it! I feel it!"
As Henry spoke, lightning struck. Federalist delegate, Archibald Stuart, feared that, "The spirits [Henry] had called seemed to come at his bidding." The elements seemed to conspire against the Federalists and the Constitution and there was little hope that Virginia would ratify the Constitution.
Unmoved by the thunder of words and element, Madison quietly responded by compromising and pledging his support for a Bill of Rights, thereby addressing a major concern of the Anti-federalists. Madison had feared adding a Bill of Rights, because he believed that the wording of such rights would be read constrictively. Nevertheless, he compromised.
Henry warned that Madison would not keep his promise. The delegates, Anti-federalists and Federalists alike, trusted Madison and voted 89-79 to support the Constitution.
With his capacity for bringing people of differing views together for a common purpose – a United States – Madison introduced the Bill of Rights in the First Congress. Despite opposition and intransigence, Madison worked across the aisle building coalitions, believing sound ideas in a time of need could bring people of good will together. Compromise resulted in the adoption and ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In his acceptance speech, filled with Madison-like hope, and delivered with Patrick Henry-like eloquence, President Obama pledged to work with Governor Romney and others to unite America. Tempered by the campaign, our president recognizes that our nation's future hinges not on his eloquence but on his capacity to build coalitions and forge a grand compromise equal to the challenges that beset us.
Working with Romney makes sense. Pundits, on the right and the left, have declared an end to Romney's service on the national stage. President Obama, however, might wisely use Romney's talents and courageously evidence his willingness to reach across the divide.
Romney was the Republican nominee because his business background seemed well-suited to solving pressing economic problems. He also garnered early endorsements from Congressional leaders he previously helped get elected. He can call on those he helped and his ability as a problem-solver to assist the President.
Romney working alone will be insufficient. He should co-chair a powerful bi-partisan committee. Hillary Clinton, who is resigning as Secretary of State, would be a superb co-chair. She has experience in working across the aisle and a strong intellect.
The committee could be made up of respected former Senators such as Olympia Snow, Richard Lugar, and Gordon Smith, on the Republican side. Joseph Lieberman, an independent, might be a good choice. On the Democratic side, Senators like Blanche Lincoln, Evan Bayh, and Bill Bradley might serve.
President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney know far better than I who might serve. If the president assured Clinton and Romney, and others, that their ideas will be taken seriously, they will serve, given their commitment to America.
Madison compromised, built a coalition, providing a solid foundation for our nation. President Obama can do likewise and save us from falling off a financial cliff, by drawing hope from the ideas of a powerful bi-partisan committee of his making.
Rodney K. Smith is a Distinguished Professor of Law at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California.