Hard as it is to believe that anyone could think Donald Trump could be better than Joe Biden at anything, from running the country to drinking from a glass of water, there are such people. And it was those people to whom Biden pitched his economic speech Thursday afternoon in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, outside of Scranton, where he famously grew up in the pre-Dunder Mifflin era.
It was not a speech for the ages, from a rhetorical point of view. But what he said was fine. Plenty fine. He had some very tough attack lines on Trump, as my colleague Hanna Trudo pointed out. On the programmatic side, it was fine. The specifics don’t particularly matter. What matters are three things.
First, that he win. As Republicans have long understood better than Democrats, the first job in politics is to win the damn election. If you win, you can do maybe a quarter to a half of what you said you wanted to do, depending on the circumstances. But if you lose, you do zero. And meanwhile, if you lost, that means the bad guy won, and he’ll do lots and lots of bad things.
Second, that the Democrats have to flip the Senate. Because if they don’t do that, nothing much happens, whereas if they do accomplish it, then everything is on the table. Well, not everything. Not Medicare for All. But if the Democrats win and do away with or modify the filibuster, which seems increasingly in the realm of possibility, loads of things are possible, from obvious stuff like a $15 minimum wage up to and including D.C. statehood, which I pray they get to on principle but also just to make Tom Cotton have to shake the hands of his two new Black Senate colleagues in 2023.
Third, once Biden wins, activists should press him all they can on making progressive appointments. Personnel is policy, as Elizabeth Warren says. So, no Tim Geithners this time around. Economic advisers who want to foment a little class war, in the right direction. An attorney general who’ll go after monopolies, especially the techies. Make sure Mark Zuckerberg pays—literally—for pretending to be a First Amendment absolutist.
That’s the ballgame, gang. So I would advise: Don’t get too hung up on what he does and does not say, commit to, promise. He’s not Bernie. And he’s not Elizabeth, either. He’s not going to be.
He needs to talk to those 2016 Trump voters. It makes total sense. He needs to peel some of them away from Trump. Actually, some of them seem to have self-peeled already. But they’re probably not in Camp Biden yet. They’re leaning against Trump, maybe leaning hard, but possibly still gettable by Trump if he can find a way to kneecap Biden, which means that Biden can’t hand Trump any clubs.
Specifically, if Biden does, say, 5 points better among white voters than Hillary did, he cannot lose. Case study: In 2012 in Michigan, Barack Obama got 44 percent of the white vote on his way to an easy, 9-point win. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got 36 percent of the white vote as she very narrowly lost.
If Biden can get that back up to a mere 41 percent, it’s not close. And if he can better Obama—and he probably ought to be able to, especially if there’s a double-digit unemployment rate—then he crushes Trump in Michigan.
And if he crushes Trump in Michigan, then he’ll beat him in a lot of places. Like maybe Ohio, and maybe just maybe even Iowa. And if he wins in a place like Iowa, then Theresa Greenfield beats Joni Ernst in the Senate race. And if Democrats like Greenfield are winning, they’ll have 53, maybe 54 Senate seats.
No, I’m not saying it’s a zero-sum game between going after white Trump voters and going after voters of color. Some of Biden’s best remarks Thursday were about conquering systemic racism. I’m just saying that Trump is so weak right now, the goals should be super-high. Like at least 350 Electoral College votes and 53 Senate seats. Finish. Them. Off.
I suppose I should talk a bit about the substance of the speech. He’d jack the corporate tax rate back to 28 percent (it used to be 35, Trump and the Republicans lowered it to 21). He’d invest $300 billion in clean-energy infrastructure (more on than next week). A $400 billion program for the government to buy American-made goods for stockpiles, infrastructure expansion, and so on.
It’s all fine. If there’s a thematic through-line, it’s veneration of the middle and working classes. And a specific kind of veneration—not chiefly as good, humble, salt-of-the-earth folk, though there’s always some of that with every pol, but as the people who built this country and created its wealth. That has a sharp class edge to it, and isn't something that every pol says.
Biden also talks more about unions more than almost any contemporary American politician I can think of. And it wasn’t your usual namby-pamby, dishcloth cliches. I mean, how about this line: “The only way to deal with abusive power is power. And labor unions are the only ones who have the capacity to do it.” That’s inching into FDR-“economic royalists” territory.
So, Biden is fine. He still has to do his job for the next 15 weeks, which will consist of 1) staying healthy, 2) not screwing anything up, like his vice-presidential pick, and 3) staying on this working- and middle-class message like white on rice.
But the rest of us have a job to do, too. We can’t screw this up, either. Those Ralph Nader-Jill Stein days are over. Joe Biden may prove to be the St. Paul of politics. Time to put away those childish things and see the world as it is.