If the election were held today, Joe Biden would crush President Donald Trump. Almost any other Democrat – including one named Generic Democrat – would also beat the man who runs an administration of kooks, quacks, criminals, drunks, wife-beaters and grifters.
Sadly, there remains a sizable constituency for incompetency on this scale – the look-the-other-way evangelicals, the get-yours-while-you-can corporate class, the-ditch-your-principles Republican officeholders. They’re with Stupid, no matter how much Trump debases the office.
But you can’t beat nothing with better-than-nothing. Not-Trump is not enough. Quick: What are Democrats for? Continuity With Change? Stronger Together? A Better Deal? Two of those are actual slogans of the national party, and one is from the feckless politician on “Veep.”
Surprisingly, the Democrats are thinking big for once. The ideas being tossed around are risky enough to be called bold: a guaranteed-jobs program, universal health care, a public option for banking, free community college.
But the best-known carriers of that message have problems. Nancy Pelosi is toxic in many a targeted red-to-blue district. Chuck Schumer sounds too much like a party hack. The presidential contenders all have weaknesses.
If you were to go into a lab and create a perfect candidate for 2020, along with a popular policy prescription for this anxious decade, what would that look like? It would be a big-hearted, progressive person whose appeal crosses class lines. It would be someone very much like Biden – a younger Biden. Let’s ignore the age issue for now.
Your candidate would need to be ethically clean – no Wall Street speeches, no foundations that serve as backdoor ways to do well while doing good, no sexual misconduct. This is vital, because Trump has filled the swamp with odious creatures, taking their cues from him.
People were sick of it in 2006 – when Democrats won the House in part on campaigning against the “culture of corruption.” They were sick of it in 2016, when Hillary Clinton could not shake the stink of big finance-connected profiteering. And they are sick of it today, when more than half of Trump’s Cabinet has engaged in questionable behavior.
It might help if your candidate was not from the political class. Oprah? She’s not interested, so she says. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook showed some promise until we all realized that social media had been weaponized to destroy democracy. Entrepreneur Mark Cuban? Haven’t we had enough of a reality show star playing at being president?
This gets you to the bench of elected officials. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York, is a whirlwind of Big Ideas of late. She just unveiled a financial first step for paycheck-to-paycheck Americans: a plan to require every post office to offer basic banking services – an alternative to predatory payday loans.
She is coldbloodedly #MeToo, having shoved former colleague Al Franken and the Clintons under the bus. And she has gotten ahead of the one-note socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders on the idea of a job guarantee for everyone who wants to work. The problem there is cost (up to a half-trillion dollars, by some estimates) and the bureaucratic nightmare it could create. Gillibrand is swinging for the fences, even if she did the least well of major Democrats against Trump in recent polling.
Much of the party’s energy is coming from the Sanders wing; Sanders himself will be 79 on Election Day 2020 and is not getting any less cranky. But don’t overlook the enthusiasm generated by Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke or Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. They’ve stood up for the basic right of health care and against the wrong of more tax cuts for the rich – foundational positions favored by a majority of the country.
Another prospect is the Senate’s resident vegan, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. He’s got some Wall Street problems and is less populist than the mood of the country. But he has terrific political skills; he wouldn’t need a slogan like Stronger Together.
In the same class is rookie Sen. Kamala Harris of California. She’s sharp and dynamic, with the right balance of ego and intellect. But how would a California liberal play in Scranton, Pennsylvania?
That brings us back to Scranton-born Biden. A new study suggests that fear of cultural displacement was a greater driver for Trump voters than economic anxiety – identity politics for aging white males. It would seem to take some of the working-class-savior reasoning out of Uncle Joe’s candidacy.
But that analysis still doesn’t adequately explain the millions of people who voted for both Barack Obama and Trump. That’s where Biden comes in, and why he cleans up against Trump in early matchups. The problem is that he will be 77 on Election Day.
Trump will be 74. He’s old and he’s angry, and he will only get older and angrier. Build a better Biden, from our political lab, and you win. But maybe the current Biden is built to last, with just enough septuagenarian strut to end the dark age of Trump.