POLITICS

Will We See A Unity Task Force for Republicans?

What happened in 2020 for Democrats explains why it’s unlikely

Heath Brown
3Streams
Published in
4 min readFeb 1, 2024

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

After New Hampshire’s primary, Republican National Party Chair Ronna McDaniel urged Nikki Haley to drop out of the race so the party could “unite around the eventual nominee,” former President Donald Trump.

Four years ago, it was the Democrats seeking that elusive unity. They did so by forming a Unity Task Force made up of representatives of the two factions of the party: those backing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and those representing now-President Joe Biden.

Will Republicans form their own Unity Task Force right now?

The answer seems like a resounding “no,” but the reason lies in what happened behind closed doors in 2020, especially the impact of the Democrats’ task force on the planning for Biden’s presidency. I learned about what happened during that summer and fall of 2020 by interviewing over 75 members of the Biden-Harris transition team for an upcoming book. What they revealed suggests the internal struggles in the Democratic Party are very different from the ones faced by Republicans today.

When the Democrat’s Unity Task Force released its final report in July, many of the key policy disagreements in the party were addressed, if not fully resolved. Medicare for All, a priority of the progressive wing of the party, was left out of the plan. One member of the Task Force, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a staunch Sanders backer, conceded to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “We went into the Task Force understanding Joe Biden had a stake in the sand around the Affordable Care Act, that was his legacy, we were not going to turn him into Bernie Sanders.”

On other issues, though, progressives in the party got what they wanted.

On climate, the task force established ambitious goals like achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings as well as the elimination of carbon pollution from power plants, all by 2035. On racial justice, they agreed to back a commission to study slavery reparations, something Biden hadn’t clearly committed to in the past.

A policy agreement like this, as with the eventual Democratic platform that drew on these commitments later in the campaign, would only make a difference if it was reflected in the planning for the Biden administration. And, the people I talked to suggested it did just that.

One member of the Biden-Harris transition team said the feedback from “those at senior levels of the transition, the message was that ‘Hey, this is different. This is not the Clinton administration approach or even the Obama administration approach.’” Someone else on the team, a self-described progressive, attributed this to the impact of the Unity Task Force. Although it wasn’t always stated, it was clear. “There was this acknowledgment that we’re not going to necessarily put Larry Summers in charge,” the person said.

Another volunteer on the team illustrated how this worked in practice: “[The transition] looked a little bit more like a parliamentary system where you have 40 to 50%of the people coded as being part of what people either call the ‘Warren Wing’ or the ‘Sanders Wing’ of the party, and then you had half of them or a little over half being folks that had served in prior administrations.”

Indicative of this structure, the transition team named Josh Orton, an aide to Sanders, to the Labor Department agency review team, and Anne Reid, the chief of staff to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), to the review of Health and Human Services. Experts from progressive think tanks, like the Roosevelt Institute and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, sat alongside those from party stalwarts, like the Center for American Progress.

The eventual Biden agenda and accomplishments over the last three years reflect the party’s policy consensus reached by the Unity Task Force and later promoted by the work of the transition team. It probably also explains why Biden doesn’t have a serious challenger from within the party this year.

Today, Republicans face a very different disunity.

Dozens of Republican-aligned groups have lined up behind the Heritage Foundation and its Project 2025 to direct the agenda of the next conservative administration. The major candidates, including the two remaining, have agreed on more than they have disagreed. The debates, though not attended by Trump, have revealed differences in style and experience, but few disagreements on major policy issues like immigration, health care or foreign affairs.

As evidence of this, listen to Haley’s comments after Tuesday’s primary. She pointed to her time as governor of South Carolina where she cut taxes, passed a voter ID law and signed what she called “the toughest immigration bill in the country.”

In so many ways, Haley’s agenda is Trump’s, and the policy differences within the party are nothing like what the Democrats faced four years ago. The unity the RNC seeks today has little to do with policy and will likely only be resolved by Republican primary voters over the next several weeks, not by a task force.

Note: an previous version of this piece appeared on The Messenger.

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Heath Brown
3Streams

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits