“You go to war with the army you have not the army you want or might wish to have at a later time,” Donald Rumsfeld once observed. Something similar can be said about presidential races. You get elected president with the electorate you have, not the voters you want or might wish to have at a later date. That’s the main reason I strongly and proudly support Joe Biden for president. Unless and until someone proves otherwise, former Vice President Biden is clearly the candidate best positioned to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. And that factor, who can most readily send Trump packing, is what matters most to me.
President Trump (I can barely type those two words together) is an unmitigated national disgrace. He sullies both the office he holds and the character of our nation. Trump has tarnished the reputation of our country in ways that may take decades to overcome. His unspeakable cruelty, breathtaking ignorance, malignant narcissism, racism, misogyny, boorish behavior, and disrespect for the most basic American values create a toxic brew that emboldens the worst among us from the schoolyard to the boardroom and threatens to unleash an even worse cataclysm at any moment. Trump must be driven from office, tried for his now-documented crimes, and sent to prison, the only federal housing for which he is unquestionably qualified. To restore the honor of our nation, to redeem our collective soul, and to be able to look our children in their faces without shame we simply must defeat Donald Trump. To be sure, there are many other issues of pressing concern: civil, women’s and LBGTQ rights, economic justice, climate change, access to quality education, fair trade, criminal justice reform, voting rights, judicial independence, healthcare, to name just a few. But we have no hope of making progress in any of those areas as long as Trump remains in office.
How the 2020 Race Will be Won or Lost
In 2020, just as in 2016, the race for the White House will be decided by a handful of states, namely Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, states Hillary Clinton narrowly lost. A democratic candidate who wins the reliably democratic states Hillary Clinton pocketed and who also wins back just those three additional states will evict Trump from our White House. There are a handful of other so-called “swing states” that could also come into play, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, and New Hampshire are most frequently cited. But when it comes to determining who wins, the simple math tells us nothing matters more than holding on to the states Clinton easily won and taking back the three “rust belt” states she lost.
Every poll I have seen indicates Joe Biden is the candidate most likely to beat Trump in those key states while also comfortably holding on to traditionally democratic states. (See this, this, and this). Beyond his many other qualifications, the simple fact that Biden is the candidate most likely to defeat Trump is why so many of us urged him to run. That’s also why African Americans, among others, also trend toward Biden. Like me, they are dead serious that Job One is to defeat Trump.
Biden’s candidacy does two important things. First, it gives democrats the chance to nominate the person most likely to defeat Trump. Second, and equally important, it presents the other democratic candidates with an electoral hurdle that, if overcome, would enable them to generate the respect and momentum necessary for them to defeat Trump. Don’t get me wrong: I like, respect, and admire many of the other excellent candidates running for the democratic presidential nomination. Several of them might make truly great presidents. But if Elizabeth Warren, or Cory Booker, or Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar can’t beat Joe Biden in a race for the democratic nomination, and more critically, in the democratic primaries in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, which they would have to win to get enough delegates to overcome Biden, there is no reason to think they could beat Trump in those same states in a national election a few months later. Put more succinctly, if they can’t beat Biden they can’t beat Trump. Inversely, if one of the other candidates does win enough delegates to be nominated it would mean they had captured enough support in those three key states to defeat Joe Biden and thereby position themselves for victory in the general election. That is why the other candidates, and every sensible democrat, should pin a medal on Joe Biden simply for running. If Biden wins the nomination he gives us our best chance to defeat Trump. If Biden loses the nomination, his willingness to run and risk defeat will have given another candidate a chance to knock off a giant and, in that process, form the relationships with voters and momentum necessary for victory in a general election.
A Special Word to Understandably Angry Women
Before you take my head off for “mansplaining” let me note that I am a proud feminist. I was raised in a single-parent family headed by our mom, a family that often relied on welfare and food stamps. I saw our mom discriminated against in job after job, harassed and demeaned, and subjected to all the degradations routinely heaped upon women, particularly of her generation, who dared to speak up against unfair treatment in the workplace and in our society. But I am not a woman. I know many of my female friends and associates are outraged, furious, indignant and more at the thought that they, that we, are being asked, in 2020! to postpone, yet again, the election of our first female president in favor of an older, white man. I have a young daughter. I don’t want her to have to play by those same old outdated rules either. I get the outrage over gender. Maybe not as much as a woman might feel that outrage in her bones but I understand how it feels not only because of basic empathy but also because of my own status as a member of another group that has long been excluded from presidential politics, Jewish Americans.
There has also never been a Jewish American president. This year, Bernie Sanders, who does little to identify with Judaism, is the only candidate of Jewish descent with even a shot at the nomination, if not a general election victory (sorry Sanderistas, a socialist president is not in the cards). Sanders’ candidacy reminds me of the painful old joke I first heard from my mom: that it does not pay to forget you are Jewish because if you do some gentile will remind you. We all saw how that played out in the 2016, which saw Sanders unable to win in many places where anti-Semitism still runs deep, including in the South and in many predominately Christian regions. The unfunny (at least to me) jokes about Sanders’ Brooklyn accent, for example, always struck me as thinly-veiled reminders that Sanders was in some important way not like most of the voters whose support he sought. Trump’s somewhat similar accent generated very little attention before the election. Sanders accent, by contrast, made him the butt of the Larry David skits on Saturday Night Live which always struck me as offensively rooted in Sanders’ ethnicity, something that would never have been permitted were his accent associated with any other demographic group. Call it linguistic bigotry. The submerged anti-Semitism contained in those jokes led many of those laughing to behave like fish who don’t understand the concept of water. That is how deep anti-Semitism runs; it is the age-old, deeply ingrained prejudice most responsible for the lack of a Jewish president for the entire life of our nation. So no, I am not a woman. But I am a Jew and I know what it feels like to be excluded based on identity, whether from the Right as a consequence of old-fashioned bigotry, or from the Left, where exclusion, particularly of white Jewish men, is often paradoxically accomplished under the guise of inclusion. Jews constitute about 2 percent of our population. And yet, mainstream culture often denies to us even the status as a minority that defines our very existence. I understand why so many women are angry about nominating yet another man. But I ask those offended to join me in doing whatever we must, including setting aside our shared umbrage over exclusion, to drive the menace that is Trump from our national stage. In the event I am wrong about electability (more on that below, I am only human and sometimes wrong) I’ll be happy to support any democrat who manages to defeat Biden for the nomination, and even happier if that candidate is a woman. But on another pragmatic note, I’d wager that once Biden wins the nomination he will select one of the excellent women running against him as his running mate and that woman, our first female vice president (I’m rooting for Elizabeth Warren), will become our first female president, perhaps as early as 2024. A Jewish president, by contrast, seems unlikely in my lifetime. Exclusion hurts. I get it.
Biden is The Most Qualified Candidate for President in the Country
Most of this essay has focused on the narrow issue of electability because for me defeating Trump is what matters most. But I want to add some thoughts about Joe Biden’s other qualifications, which are considerable and which should not be overlooked. In fact, these qualifications help explain why Biden is leading in the polls in match ups against his rivals for the nomination and against Trump.
I served alongside Vice President Biden in the Obama-Biden administration. One of the things you learn as a presidential appointee, in the unlikely event you didn’t already know it, is that at that level politics is a team sport. No one accomplishes anything at the federal level alone. In my role in the U.S. Department of Education, I had regular contact with the Office of Vice President Biden and with the office of his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who has a longstanding special interest in education policy and in community colleges in particular, which was my area of responsibility.
The Biden team was and is exceptional. Vice President Biden and Dr. Biden recruited and empowered a diverse team of highly ethical, hard working aides and assistants not one of whom was ever tainted by even the suggestion of anything less than exemplary public service. I’ll confess I got tired from time to time of being called upon by senior officials in Biden’s office for extra work on a fairly regular basis, requests that so often seemed to come in to my office just as I was preparing to go home. But I knew those requests were coming from people who were working as hard as they were asking me to work, and who felt the clock ticking. We had only so much time to do the work President Obama expected of us, we had to leave it all on the field. In the process, I got a sense of the caliber of people President Biden and First Lady Dr. Biden would bring into their White House. Politics is a team sport and Team Biden is as good as they come.
Likewise, if you want to know what Dr. Biden would do as First Lady you only have to look at what she did when her husband was vice president, the focus she brought to supporting community colleges and our veterans, and what she has accomplished on their behalf since the Obama administration ended. Others talk about free college. Dr. Biden has walked that talk not only thru her work as an English Professor at Northern Virginia Community College, where she shared an office with a teaching colleague, but also by helping to create and lead the bipartisan College Promise Campaign’s board, an effort directed by my former boss, Obama administration Under Secretary of Education Dr. Martha Kanter. (Full disclosure: Over the past two years, I have worked as both a volunteer and as a paid consultant to the College Promise Campaign).
Three years ago, when Dr. Biden and Dr. Kanter started their work promoting free community college tuition no one, myself included, thought there was much of an appetite among state and regional policy makers for eliminating community college tuition. Where would the money come from? Three years later, there are free community college “promise” programs in dozens of states, nurtured and supported by the persistent, determined efforts of Dr. Biden and her College Promise Campaign team, which has worked tirelessly to popularize a variety of practical methodologies for paying for tuition elimination programs. Dr. Biden initiated these efforts long before her husband decided to run for president. Other candidates talk about free college. Dr. Biden has talked less and done more. We don’t have to guess how effective Dr. Biden will be or what public policies will occupy her time as First Lady. We already know.
The same can be said about her husband. We have seen how Joe Biden acts and reacts under pressure. We’ve seen him lead on countless issues, on gay marriage, on creative diplomacy, veterans affairs, and how he used his legendary interpersonal skills to marshal essential support for critical Obama administration priorities. His personal history of grief and loss is manifest in the way he comforts the afflicted and identifies, in a deeply personal way, with the pain of others.
I am the first to admit that Joe Biden is not perfect. Over the years Biden took positions on some issues that did not coincide with my own strongly held views. But I have also seen him change and adapt, grow and learn, listen and respond. He has the courage required to work across the aisle with republicans to make good things happen when that is possible and the wisdom to walk away from those talks when that is what a situation requires. I have every reason to believe he will do no less as our president, including by putting in place an excellent administration of activists with their ears to the ground.
Joe Biden is tested and ready. Unlike his opponents for the nomination, he has already been subjected to the extreme scrutiny of several national campaigns. We know his strengths and his weaknesses, something we can’t say about his competitors for the nomination all of whom, should they win the nomination, would be getting their very first political colonoscopy in the middle of a national campaign against Trump. To cite just one example, can you imagine the hay Trump’s media team would make in the pivotal rust belt states against Kamala Harris, whose brother-in-law, the husband of her campaign manager slash sister, is the top legal official at Uber, a company that incessantly works to roll back and undermine hard-earned rights of workers around the world at a time when the gig economy is throwing millions of lives into an economic freefall? All Trump needs is one strong ad about how Uber undermines worker’s rights and Harris would be toast with enough workers to throw those rust belt states right back into the GOP column. By contrast, Biden has been a strong union person his entire political life. He does not have any close family members working to strip workers of their hard-earned rights or bust unions. If Trump throws similar attacks at him they won’t stick.
(As an aside, and to shamelessly promote some of my own recent work, here is a look at what a progressive alternative set of public policies on the gig-economy looks like. I don’t know if candidate Biden will support innovative proposals like these, fresh thinking new ideas that are needed to re-empower working families in our digital age, but I have every reason to believe his administration would give them a fair hearing. I can’t say that with certainty about any other candidate, many of whom are also raising funds from Uber-like tech company CEOs and venture capitalists who don’t give a fig about workers rights).
What else don’t we know about the other candidates for the democratic nomination who are also making their first run for the national spotlight? Do we really want to find out what their weaknesses are, what ads might work against them, in the closing weeks of a campaign against Trump? Likewise, I am unwilling to again trust those who claim the gender or race or age of our candidate will by itself bring a sufficient number of new voters to the polls, that the demographics of the electorate will be augmented in sufficient numbers in the key swing regions because of the identity characteristics of our candidate. We heard those exact same claims in 2016, when those who maintained there was already a new democratic majority in place were ignored by the actual voters in the three critical swing states. You win an election with the voters you have, not with the voters you wish you had or think you will have at some time in the future.
The stakes are far too high for us to gamble on the outcome. Joe Biden is respected and admired by everyone I know who worked in the Obama-Biden administration. He has ready access to the best, most ethical, tested and experienced democratic political team in the country, a team whose members work together like brothers and sisters. Biden has the best chance of beating Trump. Nothing is more important. If I am wrong we will find that out should someone manage to push Biden aside in the key battleground state primaries. In the meantime, I support Joe Biden. Just by running he is performing an indispensable public service for all of us and for our country. Joe Biden for President.