“Fact is, every economic aspect of our Country is the best it has ever been!” read a recent Donald Trump tweet. Not surprisingly, Trump has made it clear that the economy’s strength will be the centerpiece of his reelection campaign. For that reason, the Democrats lining up to support former vice president Joe Biden as the most electable opponent to Trump have got it wrong.
Trump can’t resist exaggerating the economic news, but there is much to boast about. Unemployment is at its lowest level since 1969, with job openings exceeding the numbers looking for work. Hispanic and African-American unemployment rates, while still dramatically higher than the white rate, have hit record lows during Trump’s tenure.
Trump, of course, is a bit like a drunk jumping on a street car headed downhill who thinks he’s driving with his foot on the gas. He claims that his deregulation, his tax cuts, and his trade policies have made the difference. With the China trade deficit reaching a new height last year, the tax benefits going overwhelmingly to the already rich, and the deregulation blitz only beginning to take effect, his claims are a reach. But whether from good fortune or good policy, he can and will take credit from voters.
As Trump barrels forward, Democrats are engaged in a furious argument over how to stop him. Many Democratic primary voters indicate they are ready to support the candidate most likely to defeat Trump, even over their personal favorite. Joe Biden has become the early front-runner because of a widespread sense that he is the “safest bet” to defeat Trump. Experienced and moderate, “Scranton Joe” is credited with having a special appeal to the white working-class voters that went to Trump, particularly in the key swing Midwestern states.
Making the case for Biden, Andrew Sullivan dismisses arguments that he is too white, too old, too “handsy,” and too compromised to win. Sullivan maintains that Trump will turn out the Democratic base for any candidate, while Biden can appeal to moderate voters, notably non-college-educated white men. Biden enjoys the imprimatur, if not the endorsement, of one of the most popular Democrats, Barack Obama. A good portion of the party’s institutional centers—the money, the operatives, the union and establishment leaders—are rallying to his banner.
In fact, rather than the “safest bet,” Biden is more likely to end up the worst of all worlds—unable either to excite the emerging Democratic coalition of young people, minorities, and women or to win back the Obama-Trump working-class voters. He could easily become the Democratic equivalent of Bob Dole, the hapless Republican Senate leader who lost badly to Bill Clinton’s reelection bid.
If the growing economy is Trump’s calling card, it is also his greatest vulnerability. This economy is about as good as it gets, and it still doesn’t work for most Americans. Wages have begun to stir but aren’t close to making up for the stagnation of the past decades. The costs of basics—health care, prescription drugs, housing, child care, college—are all rising faster than wages. College debt now totals over $1.6 trillion, with more and more families simply unable to afford to send their kids to school. Nearly 30 million lack health coverage, an increase of at least 7 million since Trump’s election. Tens of millions more can’t afford the care they need. Nearly one in five black families and one in seven Latino families are in debt or have zero net wealth. Trump chose to pass top-end tax cuts instead of rebuilding our decrepit and increasingly dangerous infrastructure. For all of his posturing, his 2016 jibe—that now we build cars in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint—is still true.
Beneath the populist packaging, Trump’s basic policies—top-end tax cuts, deregulation driven by corporate lobbyists, and a government open for business—are standard Republican fare, feeding inequality and corporate plunder. The central task of the Democratic standard-bearer in 2020 will be to expose Trump’s con by showing that even in the best of times, the economy is still rigged against most Americans—and Trump is adding to the fix—while offering a compelling agenda for change.
The essence of the Biden candidacy, however, is restoration—a promise of a return to the “normalcy” of the Obama years. That appeals to centrist Democrats, but it also makes Biden the perfect foil for Trump to run against. To counter Biden, Trump could position himself once more as the insurgent, the agent of change against a failed establishment.
On the stump, Trump brandishes his aggressive trade policies as proof of his populist credibility. “The era of economic surrender is over,” he claimed at his recent rally in Panama City, Florida, indicting the Obama administration and its predecessor for “decades of calamitous trade policies that enrich Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.”
In contrast to Trump’s isolationist rhetoric, Biden is an avowed “free trader” and has supported NAFTA, the TPP, and China in the WTO. Given his record, he has little choice but to try to defend the indefensible. This won’t go well. Already at a stop in Iowa, Biden lamely dismissed the Chinese challenge, arguing that it was implausible that Beijing would “eat our lunch” and that China was “not competition for us.”
Trump offers a populist explanation about why this economy is rigged against what he calls “the invisible people.” Echoing Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, he rails against the entrenched “elite” who rigged the rules and allowed other countries—China, NATO allies, NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada—to “rip off the US.”
In his first public rally at a Teamsters hall in Pittsburgh, Biden tried out his populist voice, scorning Trump for the tax cuts, indicting CEOs for their greed, voicing his solidarity with unions, and pledging to rebuild the middle class. “How did we get to this place,” he asked, where so many people across America “don’t think we see them?”
He never answered the question. Instead, he reiterated that “we’re tearing America apart instead of lifting it up” and suffering from a “broken political system that’s deliberately being undermined by our president to continue to abuse the power of the office.” But Trump is a symptom, not the source of America’s political and economic problems—and surely those who chose to vote for Trump after voting for Obama know it.
Worse, Biden really doesn’t have much to say about how to make the economy work for working people. It’s still early, but Biden isn’t a big policy maven and isn’t likely to lay out a bold agenda for the future. He’s already suggested that all Democrats “agree on basically everything, all of us running—all 400 of us.” He embraces the $15 minimum wage from Bernie’s agenda, calls for reversing Trump’s tax cuts, touts a public option for health insurance over Medicare for All, and waves vaguely at making college and training affordable. His agenda will fill out over time, but his appeal is less about the future than about ending the Trump “aberration” and returning to the status quo.
But elections, in the end, are always about the future. Democrats won’t beat Trump simply because of his personal corruptions, nor can they count on demography to carry their cause. They would be ill-advised to pick a candidate who champions a restoration to the past. Democrats need a leader who can puncture Trump’s populist con and lay out a bold vision and agenda for change. Joe Biden has many strengths, but that isn’t among them.