As Joe Biden romped to victory on what cable news called "Super Tuesday II" in recognition of the American public's relentless thirst for branded sequels, CNN's Jake Tapper surveyed the scene and offered a cheerful parallel: what if this is like John Kerry in 2004, where the fading Bernie Sanders has reprised the role of Howard Dean? The comparison only goes so far, even if the lion's share of the Democratic electorate is once again motivated almost solely by defeating the Republican incumbent, and have put on their pundit caps to rally around the guy they've convinced themselves is most Electable. For one thing, Donald Trump is particularly unpopular, and it appears—based on the 2018 midterms and some data out of Michigan last night—that Republicans are hemorrhaging support among white suburban voters, particularly women, as a result.
Still, there are ways in which Biden is weak. It does us no good to pretend that he is the same guy who tore apart Paul Ryan in a vice-presidential debate in 2012. He is slower now, and there are times he doesn't always make sense. Trump has his own problems in that department, but the president's primal instinct for viciousness and cruelty could still prove effective against Biden—not that, based on 2016, debates particularly matter.
Biden's more significant problems may arise with voters who believe the economy is not working for them, that they've been left behind by a system rigged against them. Biden's emerging coalition of the Democratic Party's African-American base and Trump-hating suburbanites will need to feature younger and white working-class voters to get him across the line in places like Michigan—the kind of votes that Hillary Clinton failed to get running a campaign that was primarily a negation of Trump, not unlike the one Biden's running. He also needs to make inroads with Hispanic voters, who skew younger and working class and have gravitated to the Sanders campaign.
You need to be running for something, not just against something, to get the votes you need beyond the Democratic primary electorate. Joe Biden must have a signature policy that will speak to the fundamental issues of our time:
- wage stagnation and the collapse of working-class life;
- our dangerously crumbling infrastructure;
- our pressing need to remake our economic system to avoid the onrushing threat to human civilization as we know it posed by the climate crisis;
- and the generalized collapse of faith in our system and its most powerful practitioners, particularly among young people.
The answer to all this may just be a Green New Deal, or at least a similar green infrastructure plan. If Biden is reluctant to call it the Green New Deal for fear of tying himself to the left and/or alienating the suburbanites in his coalition, he can call it the Rebuild America for the 21st Century Plan or whatever the hell he wants. But since it's abundantly clear he's not going to pursue any major healthcare reform, he needs to present a simple and clear vision for America's future, not just a promise to return things to, like, 2015 or whatever, before the orange man made everything bad. Clearly everything was not good back then, since an insane game-show host got enough traction with the electorate to crash into the White House. People outside the Democratic primary electorate will need to believe their lives will change beyond the blessed prospect they won't have to see the president making a mess on TV every day.
First, an infrastructure bill is a political winner. Perhaps Trump's biggest mistake was having Paul Ryan and Co. try to Repeal and Replace the Affordable Care Act as the Republicans' first major initiative on seizing control of every branch of government in 2016. If Trump had pushed a massive infrastructure bill, the cowering Democrats in Congress would have gone right with him. He could have gotten a bipartisan deal through immediately and done a victory lap as The Artful Dealmaker Who Cuts Through All the Political Bullshit to Get Things Done. Instead, he oversaw a quixotic quest to try to erase the first black president's signature achievement, which The Base would have loved but which ultimately proved a massive dud politically. Biden could run on an infrastructure bill and remind people over and over again that Trump failed to deliver on a similar promise and tried to strip them of their healthcare instead.
Second, the bill would create good-paying jobs in both urban and rural communities across the country at a time when the American economy's fastest-growing segment is the "low-wage workforce"—the 53 million Americans, and 44 percent of American workers, who do not make a living wage. This state of affairs is destroying people's lives and fueling social and political dysfunction as hope gives way to rage and despair. Put people to work on a living wage rebuilding the infrastructure in their communities so it's fit for the trials to come, including adaptation and mitigation of the climate crisis.
Which brings us to three: it's the right thing to do. The people who study this stuff—at, say, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—say we are running out of time to fundamentally transform our economy to stop putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps heat and in turn destabilizes our ecosystems and throws our only planet into a level of disarray that threatens our very way of life. We have a moral and practical duty to rebuild our society in the image of the future, which means clean energy and an infrastructure that's equipped to deal with rising seas, more ferocious storms and wildfires, severe floods and drought. Forget about what it costs—nobody actually cares about The National Debt, as Trump's time in the sun has demonstrated. If Trump attacks him on it, he can point to Trump's ballooning of the deficit to give tax cuts to rich people and multinational corporations. Plus, this investment could spur economic activity in the same way Republicans always say tax cuts will, except it might actually happen.
Last, this is the most promising avenue for Biden to reach out to The Youth Vote which has so conspicuously evaded him in the primaries. While some of that is down to Bernie Sanders's incredible appeal to voters under 30—and, if last night is anything to go on, his comparative strength with voters under 50(!)—a lot is due to the fact that Biden has so far failed to connect with them on any level. He does not embrace Medicare For All, he does not devote a lot of time or concern to the metric ton of student loan debt that is crushing an entire generation of Americans, he has not matched Sanders's willingness to disentangle us from unwinnable foreign wars.
He must hang his hat on this issue, showing younger voters that he knows their futures are at stake—and not just when it comes to the climate crisis. These are some of the people who could fill the good-paying jobs that will be created. These are people who will spend the next 40 years driving over broken-down bridges across this country. Biden will never summon the energy Sanders does among young people, but he needs to get some of them out to vote. He should come out for the Green New Deal—or, again, whatever the hell he wants to call it. It's a promise to rebuild America. It's something to come out and vote for. Unless, of course, Biden really just wants to go backwards.
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