Here’s what Joe Biden ought to be doing now: moving left.
Not full-tilt left, not Bernie left, not Beto “I’ll confiscate your guns” left. But credibly and sensibly left. As far left as he can go and still be Joe Biden. It’s smart politics, and it’s good substance.
Why? Mostly to try to do something to energize young people. If he’s going to be the nominee—and current betting odds rate him about seven times more likely than Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic nod—he’s going to have to do something about his anemic numbers among young people. And young-ish. It’s not just the under-30 crowd that’s cold on him. The 31-44 age group has been pretty indifferent to Uncle Joe, too.
They’re never going to love him. But he needs to talk about some things that will get a majority of them to think, “OK—at least he’s trying to talk to me.” I think he gets there on two issues: student debt and climate change.
I say student debt rather than free college for two reasons. First, it affects more people—more specifically, it affects more voters. There are about 20 million young people in college in the United States, but there are more than 40 million carrying student loan debt.
Biden’s current plan isn’t bad. It would have people earning less than $25,000 not have to make any payments at all; then, at about $25,000, people would have to pay 5 percent of their discretionary income. They’d pay for 20 years and then stop, whether they’d paid off the loan or not.
He should amp that up a little, do something dramatic. Elizabeth Warren’s plan was to use executive action (i.e., no need to involve Congress) to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for most borrowers. She was going to pay for this through her wealth tax. Biden isn’t likely to go there, of course, so maybe he can’t match Warren’s exact numbers, but he ought to get on board with the principle: just cancel a big chunk of student debt through executive action. It’s a populist move and a great gesture from the senator from Credit Card Land.
On climate, you don’t need me to tell you that young people in particular see the threat as existential in a way older generations generally do not. Biden needs to show that he gets this.
This one isn’t so much a matter of specific policy positions, because on those, Biden is not going to out-left Sanders, and more than that, he should not. Sanders wants to ban fracking on day one. Biden doesn’t, and shouldn’t. Substantively, many experts say that an immediate fracking ban will actually lead to more burning of coal in the short term. Politically, a fracking ban sounds like a really bad idea in Pennsylvania, where there are 7,800 fracking wells, virtually all of them in areas of the state the Democrats need to flip or at least do as well as Barack Obama did (in the southwestern corner of the state around Pittsburgh and the northeastern corner above Scranton). Besides, that’s a lot of jobs. You can’t just go around telling people sorry, the scientists say your jobs have to go, which Sanders in essence said in the Las Vegas debate.
Biden shouldn’t go there, but he can and should reframe the way climate action is discussed. Here’s a way to do it.
Right now, whenever climate comes up at a debate, questions are inevitably about the “cost.” The argument is lost right there with that word. “Costs” are bad. Everybody knows this. But “investments” are not bad. Investments are good. And investments are what climate spending is.
Let’s say I have $1,000 sitting around. I have my eye on a beautiful Paul Reed Smith guitar in a burled ash finish. It’s one of the most gorgeous instruments I’ve ever seen.
If I spend my $1,000 on that, yes, that’s a cost. But say I put the $1,000 in my daughter’s 529. Is that a “cost”? Well, in a way, sure. But obviously it’s more of an investment.
So the next time that climate comes up and some moderator asks him about costs, Biden could say: “Let me stop you right there. These are not costs. These are investments. These are investments in tens of thousands of new jobs. They’re investments in a greener economy. They’re investments in the younger generation, the generation that is going to lead us away from fossil fuels once and for all when they take over from us.”
That would be language that would signal to young people that he gets it. As I said above, that’s smart politics and good substance.
We will see what happens this week in Michigan, where Biden is up about 7 points, Washington state, where it’s tied, and Missouri and the other states where Biden should roll. If he wins Michigan, he’s obviously well on his way.
It is then incumbent upon him to start trying to unite the party and the broad left behind his candidacy. Sanders had his chance to do that earlier but conspicuously chose to do the opposite, tweeting the night before the Nevada caucus that the “Democratic establishment…can’t stop us.” That one tweet repelled a lot of people. If he’d tweeted “to my mainstream Democratic friends—don’t fear this movement; join it and let’s work together to beat Donald Trump,” maybe Super Tuesday would have worked out better for him.
Biden must not make that mistake. Tactically, he needs as many Sanders votes as he can get. Morally, he needs to try to be that kind of leader for a post-Trump Democratic Party and America.
Remember how Horace Greeley said “go West, young man”? Well, Tomasky says “go left, old man!”
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