On Monday there was a lot of buzz about a piece on the clickbait-ish, Beltway-access-lapdog website Axios which looked at possible cabinet picks in a Joe Biden administration in 2021, and which was truly remarkable in two ways.
First, of course, were the names themselves — a weird hodgepodge of high-profile picks that seemed guaranteed to anger every voter in one way or another, from clueless $500-million-burning billionaire Mike Bloomberg to run the World Bank to the idea that a Biden Secretary of the Treasury would either be the ultimate Wall Street insider, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, or Wall Street’s arch-nemesis, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. This is a little like saying that Joe Biden’s favorite musical act is either Frank Sinatra or the Sex Pistols.
But that obscures what was most stunning about the Axios piece: That in early March 2020 here we are war-gaming the Biden administration, when little more than two weeks ago journalists were polishing the prose on their political obituaries for the former vice president. This after his campaign seemed exposed in the chill of Iowa — where Biden ran a distant fourth — and New Hampshire as directionless and uninspiring.
I’m writing this Tuesday morning as Democratic primary voters in six more states go to polls for what CNN (and almost no one else) is calling Super Tuesday II. A slew of polls released beginning this weekend suggest that Biden’s last remaining serious rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, won’t just fall short in an all-or-nothing push in Michigan but could possible lose all six.
In the modern primary era that began in the 1970s, America has never seen a turnaround quite like what Biden has just pulled off. Polling guru Nate Silver said that, in national polling, the Scranton native and longtime Delaware senator gained 36 points in just 14 days. That eclipsed that previous record primary-season turnaround which was posted in 2004 by the Democrats’ John Kerry — not uncoincidentally the last time party’s voters were so wracked by anxiety and fear over ousting a GOP incumbent.
One of the most tumultuous months in modern American history — President Trump’s acquittal in a sham impeachment trial and his increasing authoritarianism, his administration’s appalling handling of the coronavirus crisis, and Boomer angst that the nation would never elect a democratic socialist like Sanders — have Biden re-cast as the thing that rises to the surface when the nation is a flooded with panic, as a safe harbor in the storm.
But — temping as it might be after primary wins tonight and an expected landslide next week in the critical state of Florida — Team Biden needs to keep the champagne on ice for now. The 36-point-turnaround shouldn’t hide two huge speed bumps on the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The good news is that there’s a way — an unconventional route, to be sure — for him to glide past those two obstacles.
Biden’s biggest problem, to be brutally candid, is ... Biden. Even though he’s made fewer appearances than other 2020 candidates and his speeches are shorter — a mere seven minutes at a recent big St. Louis rally — the ex-veep remains a human gaffe machine. I’m not going to join the loaded and over-wrought speculation on why he says things like anyone who doesn’t like him should “vote for the other Biden,” or imagines a South Africa arrest that never happened. But Democrats who pretend these gaffes aren’t real are about to be buried in an avalanche of videos and memes, both from Team Trump and from Team Putin.
The other Biden problem was dramatized by the freak-out over the unsourced Axios story that he might staff his administration with Wall Street hacks: Young voters under 30 simply don’t trust him. At the start of 2020, Biden was polling in the low single digits with this youngest cohort; he’s improved slightly during his recent comeback, but Sanders’ huge lead with that generation speaks to concern that Biden is a status-quo candidate on pressing issues such as climate change and student debt. In 2016, enough young voters defected to the Green Party’s Jill Stein to, arguably, tip the Electoral College to Trump.
The simple fix? Biden shouldn’t wait until December — when we might be out in the streets wondering how the hell Trump won by 78,000 votes again — or even until the Democratic convention in Milwaukee in early July, when the party needs to be more unified than it is now, to reveal some of the key players in his administration. The emphasis ought to be not just on competence — reminding voters that the grown-ups will be in charge after four years of Trump — but also to show young people that even if Biden isn’t a card-carrying leftist, his presidency would still be the most progressive one in modern U.S. history.
Of course, the biggest focus is on the vice presidency — as it should be, given Biden’s advanced age that’s even inspired talk he might not seek a second term. After women powered the resistance to Trump and drove the 2018 takeover of the House, a male VP would be a total non-starter. And California Sen. Kamala Harris — with the right experience as a former district attorney, attorney general, and lawmaker and as a forceful campaigner — seems almost too obvious; a serious policy portfolio for a Vice President Harris would fix the biggest hole in her resume as she positions to become America’s first woman president, perhaps in 2025.
But a successful Biden strategy needs to go a lot farther. Why not?...
— Climate czar Jay Inslee. During his too-brief and too-ignored bid for the White House, Washington state governor Inslee was a revelation, combining the fervor for clean energy of a 19-year-old Sunrise Movement protester with the get-things-done know-how of the button-down 69-year-old former Congress member that he is. Putting Inslee in charge of climate policy or, perhaps, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would go a long way toward reassuring the youth vote that Biden takes the climate crisis seriously.
— The women who stood up to Trump. The day after Biden wins the Florida primary, imagine him standing on a stage with Sally Yates — the former acting attorney general fired after warning about future felon Michael Flynn — and former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and former top Russia aide Fiona Hill and announcing that all three will have high-level jobs in the Biden administration. These three came to epitomize the patriotic public servant who was steamrolled by Trumpism, and their return would be a powerful statement.
— Commerce Secretary Pete Buttigieg. A cabinet post for the over-performing 38-year-old former South Bend mayor would be one more signpost to see Team Biden as a bridge to the future and not just one rambling old dude, and Commerce would be a good place for the McKinsey (sigh) alum to prove he can bring jobs to the Rust Belt. (And a reminder that Biden was a key ally is the fight for people like Buttigieg to gain the right to get married.) Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum — who like Buttigieg have struggled to win statewide in their red states — should also get pre-certified as Cabinet members, if they want those jobs.
— Put progressives over the financial sector and other white-collar crooks. Yates, as noted above, would be a popular and experienced choice for Biden’s AG, but if the would-be POTUS 46 is serious about uniting the Democrats in Milwaukee he needs to somehow show he won’t pull a Barack Obama and put the wolves of Wall Street in charge of the chicken coop.
Yes, Warren would be a fantastic Treasury secretary — imagine serving consumers and not the bankers — but like most observers I think she’d rather stay in the Senate and carry on the legacy of the man who once filled the same seat from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy. There’s also the complication that the liberal bastions of Massachusetts and Sanders’ Vermont both, bizarrely, have GOP governors who would pick their replacements.
Sanders and Warren both deserve enormous credit for pushing the Democratic Party leftward toward positive social change, yet — given the growing inevitability of a Biden nomination — these two should look to play the hand that 2020 fate has dealt them. They should leverage the huge power of a pre-Milwaukee Biden endorsement to get iron-clad commitments not just for progressive policies but the right people in the right jobs.
In today’s crises, Trump has turned his mental health and acuity into a front-burner issue because he’s surrounded himself with sycophants and yes men (because, yes, they are all men) who actually try to carry out his insane rantings, such as downplaying concerns over coronavirus as “a new hoax” by Democrats. In contrast, Biden’s mental sharpness and health at age 77 should not be out of bounds, but he can allay those fears by surrounding himself — in a mocking of Trump’s infamous boast — with nothing but the very best people.
A November election that turns off young voters who see it as a mano-a-mano between two aging septuagenarians is a guaranteed lose-lose. It might guarantee the most cynical of outcomes, four more years of Trump. On the other hand, if Americans come to see the contest as Team Sanity against Team Sycophancy, and not simply “a return to normal" but the promise of “a better normal” for the struggling, the priced-out, the marginalized, and also for the planet, 2020 could be a landslide for the Democrats. And such a blow-out could also bring a Democratic Senate, which could actually implement some of these policies.