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Act Two

Here’s the Gutsy, Unprecedented Campaign Biden and the Democrats Need to Run

The party needs a clear hold on power in Washington to deliver big economic boons to the American people. To do that, they need to make a big promise to voters.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A poll released Friday showed that just 47 percent of Democrats want Joe Biden to run for reelection. That’s a grim number. And here’s a grimmer one: Overall, just 26 percent of respondents said he should run again.

But Biden is running—with an announcement coming this week, possibly. There’s nothing the Democrats can do about it. And in fact, there’s nothing they should do about it. Yes, he’s 80 years old. But he has a terrific record of accomplishments both domestic and foreign, and there’s no one in the party who would obviously be a better candidate right here and right now. A couple of the sitting governors might be, somewhere down the line. But as Ron DeSantis keeps showing us, governors who look formidable on paper don’t always live up to the hype.

The big question facing Biden as he prepares to announce is this: What can he and the Democrats do to energize people about the 2024 election? Because right now, this reelection campaign is in need of a dose of something extra to counter the lack of enthusiasm recorded in those aforementioned numbers.

Democrats appreciate that he ran in 2020 and beat Trump and that he’s passed some impressive bills. Under normal circumstances, that would be enough. Incumbents usually run on some version of “stay the course”; we’ve moved things in the right direction, and this is no time to switch. But that won’t be enough this time. The “wrong track” number in this Morning Consult daily poll (69 percent last Monday) has been higher on average for the last year than it was during most of Trump’s presidency. And there could be a recession coming—one rather inconveniently timed, from the Democratic point of view. If additional economic headwinds start to blow, that wrong track number is likely to go even higher.

So no—the circumstances don’t call for a stay the course campaign. Biden should do something bigger and bolder. He and the Democratic candidates for Senate and House should run a unified campaign. They should say to America: Elect us—give us the White House, 52 Senate seats, and a House majority—and we’ll reform the filibuster and, by Memorial Day 2025, we’ll pass a platter of bills all aimed at helping the middle class and fulfilling the Biden motto that the economy grows from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down.

That’s an interesting campaign. That’s a campaign about the future. It implicitly acknowledges that things aren’t great right now, but it does so obliquely enough that it doesn’t sound like an admission of any kind of failure. It says, “We’ve done some good; now, we want to do better. But you have to give us the run of the place.”

This is key. Swing voters, the 5 or 6 percent who aren’t locked in and have gone from Obama to Trump to Biden and could go back, have a very old and hard-wired habit. Distrustful of both parties, they split their votes. OK, they reason, I’ll go for Biden, I guess, because I don’t want Trump back in there; but I’ll vote Republican for Senate to keep him honest.

This seems, to the swing voter, to make a kind of sense. But in reality, it’s the precise cause of our current dysfunction. Giving this Republican Party any degree of power is a surefire recipe for nothing getting done. Democrats need to explain this to swing voters and get them to break that old habit. You don’t have to love us and everything we stand for, they could say. But give us full power in Washington, and we’ll use it to make your life better.

What would be served on that platter of bills? Here’s a starter list, off the top of my head, of things they should pledge to pass:

  1. A $15 minimum wage, indexed to inflation
  2. A doubling (at least) of the overtime pay eligibility threshold to around $80,000
  3. Antitrust legislation to limit monopolies and help small businesses
  4. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act
  5. A rural broadband act and, maybe more generally, a rural economic development act (I’d love to see the Republicans oppose this one!)
  6. A tax on pharmaceutical companies to finance free opioid clinics across the country (the opioid crisis, though out of the headlines, still exists)
  7. Dental coverage added to Medicare
  8. Total reorganization of the student loan system, along the lines Biden proposed last year but bolder

There’s a start. I realize a couple things are missing from my list—climate change, notably—but Democrats will still have a free hand to build on the progress made by the Inflation Reduction Act. Otherwise, this list has something for just about everyone—young people, old people, rural America, the working poor, the striving middle class, small-business people. But what Democrats have to do is get swing voters to understand a very simple truth: Joe Biden can’t make these things happen alone. He has to have a Democratic House and Senate (and in the latter, he needs a couple extra seats to spare to get filibuster reform done).

That means that every Democrat running for federal office, from Biden on down, needs to run on the same agenda. This is a parliamentary-style campaign. It hasn’t been done much in the United States. But it’s high time. Give us power—here’s what we’ll do.

It has two great benefits. One, it’s unifying. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could endorse my eight items, even if Biden won’t be doing enough on most of them from her vantage point. But I also don’t see any items on my list that Jon Tester would have to run away from. Big Pharma would come after him, but can’t that be turned into a badge of pride in Montana? And there’s enough in there for rural American that Tester and others in his position could embrace happily.

Two, it’s forward-looking. It delivers a plan for the future. It says about as clearly as a political party can say to working people that we are on your side, something Democrats haven’t been doing very well for a long time. And it will stand in dramatic contrast to whatever apocalyptic garbage Trump will be peddling.

I fear that Democrats lack the gumption to carry out a big, unified plan. It’s different, and people—especially politicians—tend to be scared of different. Biden’s pollsters will inevitably tell him that swing voters are going to want to hear him pledge to work with Republicans, not that he and his party want full power. But polling and rhetoric aside, Biden knows very well how things actually work. I bet there isn’t a night that he doesn’t go to bed wishing he’d had two more Democratic senators in 2021 so Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema wouldn’t have mattered, and he could have passed voting rights and Build Back Better and whatever else he wanted.

Likewise, he knows today: If he wants to go down in history as a great president, he needs Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in 2025. The House seems gettable. The Senate is a long shot, to put it mildly, though the ongoing anger over the GOP’s stance on abortion rights provides a potent electoral X-factor that Democrats can use to their advantage and connect to all of this economic messaging. A unified, parliamentary-style campaign in which they all run on the same economic agenda is their best shot at holding the Senate, because it gives a rationale for why they need unified power and what they’ll do with it.

Finally, this would fire up a base that is sorely in need of firing up. Yes, the base will come out to vote against Trump. But wouldn’t it be nice if the Democrats gave them something big to vote for?