I can see why Joe Biden wants to get into a Mighty Sword contest with Donald Trump, like the one they had Tuesday. When Biden taunts Trump, it makes Trump pay attention to him, Trump drags the media along, and it sends the message that this is a Trump-Biden race.
Trump doesn’t seem to respond to any of the others in quite the way he responds to Biden. He clearly sees Biden as the biggest threat—Trump reacts to these kinds of stimuli the way an animal does, and his canine smell is telling him that Biden is the dog who’s most likely to knock him off the porch. And sure enough, Biden won Tuesday, I would think, to your average neutral observer, because he tied Trump’s unhinged behavior to the impact it’s having on regular people, on tariffs for example.
So that’s all well and good. But if Biden is going to win this thing, and I mean the primary and the general, which are two different jobs, he and his people will need to remember that job number one here isn’t trolling Trump. It’s talking turkey.
You’ll recall the political autopsy on Hillary. It was about as universal as any such post-mortem I’ve seen: She talked too much about what a ghastly human being Trump was and not enough about her own economic vision, especially for hurting small towns and rural areas. This is supposedly what cost her Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
I’m not saying Biden is making the same mistake. Way too early for that. Just throwing out a reminder here: The entire point of this campaign is convincing enough Americans—and in the right places so that their votes register on the road to 270 electoral votes—that the Democratic Party is firmly on their side.
You know that Elizabeth Warren has more plans than hairs coming out of her head. It’s done her a world of good, too. She’s running a great race so far. And you know what Bernie Sanders stands for. The same things he stood for in 2016, and for that matter 1996 and 1986 and probably 1956. His economic message, whether one finds it real-world doable or not, couldn’t be clearer.
But what does Joe Biden stand for economically? We don’t really know yet.
You can get some idea with a little Googling. Did you know that Biden has endorsed free college? Really? Joe Biden? Yep. He came out for this back in 2015, when he was considering running for president. “We need to commit to 16 years of free public education for all our children,” he said. “We all know that 12 years of public education is not enough.”
You probably thought that was the kind of idea that was too left for Biden. So did I. In fact, I’m not a big fan of free college, for reasons we’ll get to in some future column. But if Biden took that position in 2015, it’s kind of hard to imagine him backing away from it now.
Biden hasn’t gone into a ton of specifics yet on the campaign trail, but he did give a big economic policy address at the Brookings Institution last November. He laid out five principles of his economic policy:
1. Reduce inequality. Money quote: “What we need is a pro-growth, progressive tax code that treats workers as job creators, not just investors.” That “job creators” thing is a bit of insider-speak going back to the Obama era, when Republicans introduced the phrase “job creators” into the lexicon, as in, the people whose success Obama & co. supposedly resented and wanted to punish. The correct liberal response came to be that workers and consumers are the real job creators, not bosses, so Biden is dancing to the right tune here.
2. Expand education. Money quote: “So we need widespread access to affordable college. Community college should be free. In my view, four-year public colleges should be free, too.” Okay, that “in my view” is a little bit of a hedge there, maybe.
3. Empower workers. Money quote: “All the power is with employers, with companies. And they’re squeezing the life out of workers because workers have no bargaining power.” He spoke here about workers being denied overtime, being subject to non-compete clauses, and more.
4. Rebuild infrastructure. Money quote: “So we need massive investment in infrastructure. Roads, bridges, airports, broadband.” Self-evident, perhaps, but if you were going to ask me to list five pillars of a reconstructed economy, infrastructure would certainly be one.
5. Help small-town and rural America. Money quote: “Three-fourths of all venture capital goes to just four cities. Think of all the great ideas that never got funding because the entrepreneur lived in the wrong city. We can’t have ZIP codes deciding the future of this nation.” It’s really, really important that Democrats talk about this. Way too many people in small towns and rural areas just knew Hillary Clinton wasn’t talking to them at all. Virtually all the economic vitality in this country has shifted to the cities and near-in suburbs, and to certain high-research university towns. And in all those places, Democrats get 55 or 60 percent of the vote. In the rest of the country, they get 25 or 30. They turn that 25 or 30 into 37, and they win. Easily.
The Brookings speech is not going to put Biden out on the party’s left flank, but nobody expects that. As working- and middle-class blueprints go, though, it’s not bad at all. He should start talking it up more and getting himself identified with these middle-class ideas in the public mind.
We have a long way to go to any voting, of course. But if it ends up being up to Joe Biden to save this country, that’s how he’s going to do it—not by getting into smackdowns with Trump.