Memo to Democrats: Here are five keys to win in your rematch with Donald Trump

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Dear Democrats:

Well, wasn’t that an exciting presidential primary season?

After Iowa’s caucuses on Jan. 15 and New Hampshire’s primary this week, the game is pretty much over. America seems locked into a presidential race that the polls say most of us don’t want: Joe Biden versus Donald Trump.

And it’s not even February yet.

Won’t the next nine months until Election Day be fun?

I realize Nikki Haley promised to hang tough. But it’s hard to find good news in her 12-point beat-down by Trump in Tuesday’s New Hampshire vote — this after she finished third in Iowa.

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a primary election night party in Nashua, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a primary election night party in Nashua, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

Yes, moderate Republicans supported her in New Hampshire. So did so-called “independents.” But the Republican base wants Trump. And even though the former president faces more court cases in the coming months than John Gotti ever did in his mob-boss career and may be a convicted felon by the time voters go to the polls in November, it’s time to face two realities. Not only is Trump likely to be the GOP nominee, but he may be on course to defeat Biden.

No Democrat should be surprised by this. Not really. For months, Democratic leaders and campaign strategists have hosted their own pity-party as they watched Biden’s poll numbers and overall image sink into the kind of political quicksand that trapped Jimmy Carter nearly a half-century ago.

But all is not lost. Here are five keys to beating Trump and keeping Biden in the White House:

1. Accept the reality of Joe Biden’s flaws.

Yes, Biden is old, creaky and occasionally cranky. He walks like a guy who has played way too much pickleball. He appears perpetually irritable in a way that seems to call out for an antacid tablet.

So what.

At a certain age, people’s knees stiffen up. The same goes for your brain, speech patterns and persona. You’re just not as quick off the mark. Maybe you frown more than you smile. You suck on a Tums more than a lollypop.

So what.

The point here is to stop trying to ignore or hide from Grandpa Joe, who is 81.

When Biden speaks to large audiences, he’s hardly Barack Obama. He mumbles. He invents facts. He seems unfocused, nervous, far too careful that he might say something dumb.

But in a small group, over a cup of coffee, Biden is entirely different. He’s empathetic, attentive, insightful, deeply spiritual. The man reportedly carries a rosary in his pocket.

In the coming nine months, Biden should be drinking lots of coffee with lots of voters, maybe praying with them, too. Get him out of the White House and back into the real world. Stop stage-managing his every move. If a voter says something nasty, so what. Biden can pull out his rosary.

Let Biden be himself.

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2. Accept the reality of the broken economy.

Yes, I know what all the Democratic statisticians say: The economy is growing.

But that’s not what ordinary voters feel.

The disconnect between the numbers and feelings here is important.

Far too many Democratic strategists turn to numbers to measure the economy — or what they call “Bidenomics.” Ordinary people speak about how they feel when they pay a bill.

Biden’s administration, the economists say, created 14 million new jobs. And after unemployment during Trump’s presidency plunged to a 50-year low of 3.5%, The Washington Post reports that Biden, despite battling the COVID pandemic and its own economic downturn, actually brought unemployment to a new low of 3.4% before it rose to its current 3.7%.

What’s more, economic growth — the gross domestic product — has increased 22% since Biden moved into the White House. Again, this happened as America coped with a health crisis. Trump, for all his bragging, could manage only 14% growth in the economy during his presidency.

But these numbers don’t soothe the pain Americans feel when they pull into a gas station or head to the checkout line at a grocery store.

The costs of food and gasoline are the two most salient factors in how Americans view the economy, experts say. Sadly, prices for groceries and gasoline have remained high throughout Biden’s presidency. That's not good news.

Democrats need to face this. Yes, Biden stabilized the economy and inflation. But he needs to stop bragging that “Bidenomics” is all good.

Americans feel too much economic pain. Biden needs to acknowledge this and that more work needs to be done.

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3. Accept the reality of the immigration mess

Let’s face it, the border crisis is far more than just a crisis. It's a catastrophe — the kind of problem that could tear America apart.

Millions of undocumented migrants have entered the United States under Biden’s presidency. Most want nothing more than a chance to work. But no modern nation should operate this way — certainly not in an age of terrorism and drug traffic.

The numbers of undocumented migrants is now so large that it has created a separate sub-nation within America, estimated as high as 29 million in a study by Yale University. Far too many migrants live in the so-called “shadows” of normal life. They don’t vote. Many don't pay taxes or Social Security. Far too many don't learn to read and write in English. Most have little access to health care or insurance.

It needs to be said here that many are wonderful people — generous, kind, hardworking. Just walk into the kitchen of any restaurant and you’ll find plenty. Many are also running from oppression in their homelands. But it also needs to be said that too many migrants are gaming the system — falsely claiming asylum or just ignoring orders to show up in immigration courts and disappearing into American life to take in a paltry salary that is far more than they could earn in their home countries.

Biden first needs to acknowledge the problems at the border — and in the overall system. He then needs to stop blaming Republicans. And, finally, he needs to tell Democratic progressives that they need to drop the naïve free-for-all outlook that has turned the southern border into an open turnstile and has resulted in migrants being bused to train stations in New Jersey by Texas officials who are tired of trying to cope with so much human tragedy.

Immigration is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s a matter for America — and our sense of ideals as a safe harbor for the world's downtrodden. Biden needs to find common ground that offers a helping hand but also a set of rules that migrants are forced to follow.

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4. Accept the reality that Democratic 'elitism' is a problem

Democrats love to feel smart and superior. Sadly, they don’t realize that far too many ordinary Americans resent this kind of attitude.

Remember Hillary Clinton’s disastrous “deplorables” description of Trump voters in 2016? That worked out really well in attracting working-class voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan, didn’t it? Clinton lost both states to Trump — a key factor in her crushing presidential defeat.

Trump is far wealthier than his working-class supporters, but he nevertheless speaks a language they understand. In chronicling the voter attitudes in “Trump Nation” through various reporting trips in recent years, I met countless voters who continually told me they admired the fact that Trump seemed to embody a sense of respect for people whose bank accounts were not nearly as hefty as his.

Democrats scoff at this reality — at their peril. They mumble among themselves that Trump’s voters are “stupid” and “misguided.” But they miss a very important political point — namely, that voters admire Trump because he seems to respect them.

Trump has many faults. He may also be the first president to be convicted of a federal crime while running for election. And many of Trump’s supporters tell me they question his judgment and his morals. But they admire the way he connects with them, especially when he addresses many of the so-called culture war issues that frame America’s politics now.

Democrats need to return to their working-class roots. Biden has the history and talent to lead his party. But he needs to confront the misguided snobbery — and naïve “wokeness” — of far too many of his party’s leaders.

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5. Accept the reality that America is divided

One of Biden’s gifts from his decades as a U.S. senator is his ability to broker bipartisan deals. He needs to use that talent to unify the nation. This could mean making peace with Trump's supporters.

Biden’s ability to find common ground among political enemies helped him avoid the budgetary stalemates that could have shut down the federal government. It also helped him craft history-making legislation to rebuild bridges, mass transit systems and other pieces of America’s broken infrastructure.

But he seemed to stop midway through his first term.

In a second term, Biden would face enormously divisive issues, from such culture war matters as abortion, guns, race and gender equality to conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.

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Where are our 'better angels?'

What’s striking here is that Biden, during his years in the U.S. Senate, often displayed a talent for bringing opponents together. Trump, on the other hand, revels in divisiveness and conflict. His administration would likely continue to be a series of political battles — a continuation of the political wars that have ravaged all levels of government.

Like Abraham Lincoln, Biden needs to appeal to America’s “better angels.” He can start by telling his party to face up to the fact that America is deeply divided and needs to heal. Can Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the uber-progressive Democrat from New York, sit down and share a meal with Rep. Jim Jordan, the conservative Republican from Ohio? Maybe not. But Biden needs to find a way to bring such political warriors together.

The question is whether his party will listen.

We now have nine months to find out.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, as well as the author of three critically acclaimed nonfiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in the Northeast, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kellym@northjersey.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: How Democrats can win Donald Trump rematch in 2024 election