Opinion - Politics

Op-ed: Biden's campaign is at risk of going from one mistake to another – he needs a better message

John Ellis, editor of News Items
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden arrives with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles as he campaigns before his evening rally on Super Tuesday in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 3, 2020.
Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters

A successful Biden campaign is not that hard to imagine or execute. The key is to keep it simple and clarify the choice.

Framing the choice is arguably the most important element of a successful presidential campaign. How voters understand an election determines, to a significant degree, its outcome.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan did it this way: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" In 1992, James Carville put it this way: "it's the economy, stupid." In 2008, Barack Obama cast the election as an affirmation of "hope and change." In 2016, Donald Trump framed the choice with "build the wall' and "drain the swamp." To date, Democrats have framed the 2020 presidential election as a referendum on President Trump.

That's an iffy proposition on a number of levels. It cedes the power of argument to the president. It leaves Democrats at the mercy of events. And at some level, it ignores the most fundamental concerns of the electorate; a precondition of certain defeat.

Perhaps sensing this, the Biden campaign is now in the midst of what political consultants call a "repositioning." The Washington Post on Wednesday reported that Biden is no longer promising the politics of "nothing will fundamentally change" and is instead mapping out a "revolutionary agenda."

What that means is this: the Biden campaign is going from one big mistake (the Trump referendum) to another (the revolutionary agenda). The voters who matter are not really interested in either.

Those voters are "at risk" and what Covid-19 and the consequent collapse of the American (and global) economy have urgently revealed is the importance of social safety net(s).

Tens of millions of Americans hang by a thread. There are any number of harrowing statistics to back up that assertion, but let's make it quick and take one sentence from the most recent GoBankingRates annual survey:

"Almost half of respondents — 45% — said they have $0 in a savings account. Another 24% said they have less than $1,000 in savings."

And let's look out a bit and see what the future holds. This from The Committee for a Responsible Budget:

The Social Security and Medicare Trustees have released their reports on the financial state of their programs. Even though the Trustees do not incorporate the adverse economic or health consequences of COVID-19, they find Medicare Part A will face insolvency in 6 years and Social Security's trust funds will run out in 15 years. Accounting for the pandemic, the actual outlook is likely to be far worse.

"Save the safety net(s)" is a winning framework for Democrats in the fall. Not only do voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on both "issues," the public record of Republican leaders calling for the "privatization" of Social Security and down-sizing (if not eliminating) the Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare and CHIP programs would fill the stacks of a public library.

Making the election a referendum on President Trump doesn't help Democrats advance their cause one inch. They already have every anti-Trump vote there is to be had in the United States of America. No persuasion is necessary. All those voters need is a mail-in ballot or a ride to the polls on Election Day.

What Democrats don't (yet) have are the votes of enough "persuadables" in the 6–8 states that will decide the election's outcome in the Electoral College. That subset of the electorate is weirded out by the modern "woke" Democratic Party and don't share its frantic disdain for President Trump. They are deeply skeptical (to put it mildly) of "revolutionary agendas." But they do trust Democrats more than Republicans on the two biggest social safety net issues; Social Security and Medicare, and on most of the others (food stamps, unemployment insurance, Obamacare, etc) as well.

A good campaign defines its adversary. Democrats should not make Trump their adversary. They should make the modern Republican Party their adversary and force Trump to defend it. Paul Ryan Republicanism is a lot easier to beat than Donald Trump populism.

Another reason not to make the election a referendum on President Trump is that it can turn around and become a referendum on Joe Biden. That would be fine if Biden was in the prime of his life and political career, but he is not. He's "lost a step or two," as his friends say. Trump surrogates and more than a few Democrats (later in the evening) say he's senile. There is no doubt that he's "lost a step or two."

And he embodies the politics of the past. No one really wants to go back to the way it was. It didn't end well. The only convincing role left for Biden now is that of the aging political warrior. One last battle, one last stand, one higher purpose: to make sure the safety net(s) don't fray beyond repair.

It fits him well enough, acknowledging his short-comings while advertising what strengths remain. And there's dignity in it. Spending his last years in public life defending the great social programs of a nation in deep distress is honorable work. He'd be admired for taking it on.

Joe Biden is a pol, a product of old-school politics. That's fine if he doesn't pretend otherwise. It will be more than enough if he makes the election about the now acute concerns of millions of people at risk and not about Donald Trump or some overwrought policy agenda.

This article was originally published on Medium.

John Ellis is the Editor of News Items and a former columnist for The Boston Globe. You can reach him at jellis41@protonmail.com. You can sign up for the News Items newsletter here.