Joe Biden, as I’ve stated many times before, was not my first choice for the Democratic nomination in 2020. He wasn’t even in my top three. But right now, he’s my only choice for 2024. Because barring an unexpected tragedy befalling the president, I don’t intend to waste a minute thinking about the next race until after the November midterms. And maybe not for a while after that.
It’s easier to take this position, as I write in mid-August, than it would have been in mid-July. But it’s not just the Democrats’ recent surprise wins on gun safety, technology investments, veterans’ health care, and the big, if imperfect, Inflation Reduction Act, which funds groundbreaking climate initiatives, mandates Medicare drug price negotiations, and hikes corporate taxes. It’s not the great July jobs numbers—at 528,000, more than double the estimate—or the two-month decline in gas prices, which herald the deceleration of inflation rates.
And it’s not the devastating hearings produced by the January 6 House committee, or even Attorney General Merrick Garland finding a little pep in his step when it comes to investigating Donald Trump and his closest allies. It’s certainly not the encouraging election results out of Kansas, where voters overwhelmingly rejected a right-wing bid to rewrite the state constitution to ban abortion, which is buoying pro-choice Democrats nationally.
I’m not sure what Biden himself had to do with any of those victories. That’s not to say he did nothing, just to say that little to none of this success is attributable solely to his efforts (especially not in Kansas, given his anemic response to the overturn of Roe). But they all cast a little bit of a glow on Biden. And they’ve made it easier for easily frightened Democrats to imagine a midterm scenario that isn’t a crushing loss for the party—and might help them realize that any time spent bashing Biden is time not spent on those midterms. Democrats can imagine winning the Senate, if not keeping the House. They are struggling, but with inspiration and not despair, to understand whether the Kansas vote represents the kind of mobilization of female and younger voters that Trump’s election augured for the 2018 midterms—and whatever it is, how to channel it in November. Some Democrats, but not nearly enough, are focused on flipping state legislatures blue.
These are all better ways to spend activists’ time and money than imagining ideal challengers to Biden. Especially because right now, there aren’t any.
I’ve thought for a long time that progressives make a fetish out of dreaming up fiery, galvanizing candidates to run against incumbent presidents or establishment front-runners, when they should be doing the hard work of organizing and electing better people at the state and local level and to Congress. Ever since union leaders, progressive legislators, and Democratic Socialists of America cofounder Michael Harrington rallied around the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s disastrous 1980 campaign against President Jimmy Carter, which helped Ronald Reagan get elected, that has seemed obvious. I thought a primary bid against Barack Obama would be especially unwise, even after he disappointed the left on health care and social spending. Rejecting the nation’s first Black president would have split the party grievously, separating its most loyal voters, Black Democrats, who continued to support Obama, from the mainly white progressive base. Luckily, it didn’t happen.
The same problem exists when it comes to challenging Biden or pressuring him not to run. (By the way, in a breathless Axios story, only two congressional Democrats said he shouldn’t run; another dozen or so have “dodged” the question.) Like Obama, Biden was elected by Black voters, whose overwhelming loyalty in South Carolina turned the 2020 primaries around. They buoyed him again after he chose then-Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.
If Biden runs, he will be the overwhelming favorite among Black voters. If he doesn’t, Harris will. How do I know? Because Congressman Jim Clyburn, who elevated Obama in 2008, backed Clinton in 2016, and lifted Biden in 2020, said so. “Right now, I’m for Biden, and second I’m for Harris,” he told The Wall Street Journal in June, as rumors of Biden and/or Harris challengers surfaced. “I don’t care who goes to New Hampshire or Iowa, I’m for Biden and then I’m for Harris—either together or in that order.” I saw the Bernie Sanders juggernaut halted in Clyburn’s state, in person, twice. Progressives ignore the South Carolina representative, as well as the older Black middle-class voters who listen to him, at their peril. For now, Biden seems to me to be the only person who can unite the fractious Democrats.
If Biden decides not to run—and at 79, he’s got to consider it for personal reasons, not just political ones—I’ll think this through differently. Until then, I’m focused on the degradation of our democracy, with Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán seeming to helm the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and on the midterms. Right now it feels like the contest is Orbán versus Biden. Talk to me later.
Not all the conventional wisdom should be disputed: Joe Biden is an incumbent, with all the advantages that come with the bully pulpit of the White House. Given the improving economy, Donald Trump’s legal troubles, and the backlash to Republican extremism around abortion, I’m more optimistic than most commentators on the president’s reelection chances.
Still, I can’t help but feel that we’d be better served in the long run by a strong primary challenge from Bernie Sanders and the type of vision that the Vermont senator alone offers in American politics.
Bernie’s first presidential run started uneventfully. On a spring day in 2015, he announced it in front of the Capitol to a few bored-looking reporters and then walked back to work. But in that brief address, he hit on the topics that would fill his stump speeches for his next two campaigns: He wanted to create “an economy that works for all of our people, rather than a small number of billionaires”; he lamented the fact that the “1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent”; and he asked for small contributions from ordinary people in order to overcome the influence of superwealthy families.
I was part of a Democratic Socialists of America “Draft Sanders” campaign and was the most excited person I knew about the development. But my stirring vision for the 2016 bid? “A step in the right direction” that could “strengthen the Left in the long run,” I wrote tepidly in Jacobin at the time.
Sanders did far more than that. He created a new front in American politics, one committed to fighting inequality and willing to challenge the establishments of both major parties. He offered an accessible sort of populism, one that promised to reach people who had drifted away from politics or even to the political right.
The campaigns, of course, failed; and though its participants will likely fuel the next few decades of organizing, the Bernie moment seems to have passed. Our political future, however, relies on rekindling that egalitarian and populist spirit—and we don’t yet have a better front man for such a movement than Bernie Sanders.
Recent victories like the Inflation Reduction Act’s passage shouldn’t obscure the fact that Democrats need to change. For years the party has been moving away from working-class concerns and fashioning itself as the first choice of financial and real estate interests. Instead of renewing a labor-backed New Deal coalition behind bread-and-butter messaging and universal programs, the Democrats looked to wealthier professionals for support and saw their voting bloc as a mosaic of identitarian interests.
Senator Chuck Schumer’s infamous quote—“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin”—was just one example of what was said openly in the party as late as 2016.
If Trump’s victory provided a window for reassessment, it was fleeting. Steve Phillips’s 2016 best seller Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority was but one instance of Democrats portraying demographics as destiny and projecting their own worldview onto racial minorities.
These illusions may vanish in 2024. Since the last election, many Hispanic voters have turned against Biden in key swing states like Arizona and Texas. Far from reversing working-class dealignment from the Democratic Party, both the sad spectacle of establishment Democratic politicians overseeing an unequal economy, and the maximalist rhetoric of some activists within the party, seem to be hastening it.
As an independent, Sanders has enough distance from the Democratic Party to revive his appeals for something different, a politics that tells people across America that they deserve more of the wealth that they create and that the only way things will change will be through struggle against the rich and powerful.
Must it be Bernie? I think so. Despite their promise, the Squad hasn’t yet proved electorally viable beyond deep-blue districts. Unlike Senator Elizabeth Warren’s appeals, Sanders’s message doesn’t get lost in technocratic details and actually resonates with working-class voters. And unlike Biden, Sanders marries plainspoken language with justified anger against elites.
It’s not that Sanders is a hero capable of changing politics by himself, but he’s one of the few people willing to identify the villains—greedy corporations offshoring jobs, CEOs earning millions while they lay off workers, weapons manufacturers trying to push us into war—that are standing in the way of progress. Having such a voice on presidential debate stages again would be an important step in repolarizing American politics from an endless culture war to the class war that we need.
If Joe Biden decides to run again, Democrats of every ideological persuasion should applaud his choice—at least in public. Every time an incumbent president or vice president has had to endure a competitive primary, he has always won the nomination but always lost the general election that fall. The internal struggle leaves partisans exhausted, dispirited, and divided. That malaise doomed Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992, and Al Gore in 2000. (Although the Supreme Court narrowly nixed a Florida recount that he may have won.)
But if Biden does bow out, his party will need a nominee who can perform a difficult two-step. She or he will have to excite the progressive base while appealing to that small percentage of independent voters who make the difference in a contest that will likely be decided, like the last two, by slim margins in a few Midwestern states. And, even if the Supreme Court had not made abortion rights such an urgent issue, it would be an excellent time to nominate a person who, unlike the previous 45 presidents, knows what it’s like to be pregnant and a primary caregiver for one child or more. Kamala Harris, alas, has shown little ability when she ran in 2020 or as vice president to rally millions of Democrats to her side or to broaden her appeal beyond those who cheer her as the first woman and person of color to hold that office.
I can think of just one potential candidate who checks all three boxes—moderate image, transformative policies, and gender identity: Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan. While most of her views gladden progressives, she has avoided making statements that could get her branded as an “extremist” who would alienate swing voters. Whitmer is running for reelection this fall against an anti-abortion election denier in a state Trump lost by over 150,000 votes. At this writing, she is leading by about 10 points in the polls. Someone who can twice win one of the critical states that border the Great Lakes should be a decent bet to carry most or all of them in 2024.
One sign of her popularity is that Trump and his most ardent followers detest and fear her. Elected governor in 2018 after 14 years in the state legislature, Whitmer burst into national renown two years later when four right-wing men, enraged by the state’s Covid-19 restrictions, plotted to kidnap and perhaps kill her. Defense attorneys convinced a jury this spring that undercover agents had entrapped them, and two were acquitted of the charges. But a trial of the other two begins soon. Undaunted, Whitmer stresses the horrors she was facing. “Does anyone think these kidnappers wanted to keep me or ransom me?” she told The Washington Post recently. “No. They were going to put me on a trial and then execute me. It was an assassination plot, but no one talks about it that way.”
Over the past two years, Trump has repeatedly mocked the conspiracy against Whitmer and belittled her as “the woman from Michigan.” The FBI’s recent search at Mar-a-Lago will likely have far-reaching legal and political consequences. But with or without the cruel egomaniac who hates democracy at the head of the GOP ticket in 2024, Whitmer has proven that she will not tremble in a shitstorm.
Whitmer has become popular in her purple state by taking the kind of actions that endear most people to their governors. Despite a Republican-controlled legislature, she can take credit for repairing the state’s infrastructure (“Fix the Damn Roads” was her 2018 slogan), inducing auto firms to hire over 10,000 residents to good union jobs, and bolstering the Michigan education budget.
Not having run a national campaign, Whitmer has not had to take positions on a range of national issues, much less global ones. But on two essential matters—union power and abortion rights—her words and actions have been forceful and progressive. Against strident opposition from the GOP, she restored the prevailing wage law in Michigan that requires contractors to pay union wages. And, in the wake of the Dobbs ruling, she issued an executive order to stop the extradition to or from Michigan of anyone accused of performing an abortion. She also successfully petitioned a local judge to suspend the enforcement of a 1931 law that would make nearly every abortion a felony punishable by up to four years in jail for both the doctor and the woman involved.
Finally, Whitmer has a family background and a personal life that should enhance her political fortunes. At the age of 50, she has two college-age daughters by a first marriage and two stepsons with her current husband, who has often voted Republican. It will also be difficult to stick an “elitist” label on her. Whitmer’s parents held public office under both Democratic and Republican governors, and she attended a public high school and state universities (where she considered becoming a sportscaster)—and her daughters attend one now. The Michigan governor speaks in a relaxed, reassuring manner, with occasional bursts of wit.
All these qualities seem to drive top Michigan Republicans into a misogynistic fury. “Whitmer is a woman, but she is also an attractive woman,” wrote Ruby Cramer in The Washington Post, “and her use of executive power…seems to deeply trigger her male antagonists. The Republican leader of the state Senate, Mike Shirkey, bragged on a hot mic that he had ‘spanked her hard on budget, spanked her hard on appointments,’ and also contemplated ‘inviting her to a fistfight on the Capitol lawn.’”
Left-wing Democrats who long for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or someone who emulates them might consider the benefits of nominating a figure with proven political skills who could not be credibly slammed as a radical. Neither of the two Democratic presidents—Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—who signed the most transformative domestic programs in modern history was the first choice of progressives when they first ran for the White House. Gretchen Whitmer should get the opportunity to be the third.
Insurgent presidential campaigns don’t start in Washington. They begin at barbecues with the New Hampshire Young Democrats, in meetings with frustrated local officials in Indiana factory towns, on community college campuses in Wisconsin, and on picket lines in Iowa. Maybe the prospective candidate writes a book that gets good reviews, and then amplifies the book’s arguments as part of a campaign to reframe the discourse of a nation that’s ready for a new conversation. That sounds a lot like what US Representative Ro Khanna has been doing this summer, as the progressive California Democrat has maintained one of the busiest schedules in American politics.
Khanna, 45, is quick to say that he’s not running against the 79-year-old Joe Biden. Asked in July, at a point when the president’s poll numbers were low and speculation about 2024 was spiking, Khanna waved away the prospect of a primary challenge. “If he runs, he has my full support, and I fully expect him to run,” said Khanna.
So why has the congressman been trekking across the country in the hot summer season of 2022, sojourning in the likely first-primary state of New Hampshire, visiting the no-longer-quite-so-likely first-caucus state of Iowa, and crisscrossing Midwestern battleground states such as Wisconsin? Why has Khanna maintained a nonstop schedule of media appearances that have made him a regular not just on MSNBC and CNN but on Fox News, where he has batted away challenges from conservative commentators with a smooth, professional style that seemed, well, presidential?
Khanna is ambitious, in the way that Democrats should be ambitious. He rarely talks about his own political prospects, but he talks a lot about how to renew the party in places where it’s been falling behind. If Biden decides to forgo a bid for a second term, it is Khanna’s determination to expand the party’s reach—on policy and on the ground in purple and red states—that makes him a uniquely appealing presidential prospect.
A veteran of the Obama White House, where he led trade missions and worked to promote US exports, Khanna taught economics at Stanford and waged pro bono legal fights in Mississippi before challenging a Democratic incumbent and, in 2016, winning a House seat representing the Silicon Valley. The son of immigrants from India, and the grandson of a union activist who was jailed with Mahatma Gandhi, Khanna gained notice in Congress as a passionate critic of US military support for Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen and the ongoing abuses of the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force. He wasn’t cautious about ripping “neoconservative hawks” and calling for “forming a new foreign policy consensus in the United States that rejects militarism and interventionism and is rooted in restraint, diplomacy, and human rights.” Khanna quickly struck up a working relationship with Bernie Sanders, as a House cosponsor of several of the Vermont senator’s domestic legislative initiatives, and in 2019 the congressman signed on as a cochair and tireless surrogate for Sanders’s 2020 presidential bid.
Khanna recognizes that, no matter what happens in 2024, the Democratic Party needs to get a lot better at defining itself in ways that make sense in working-class communities such as Dubuque, Iowa, a union town on the Mississippi River where Trump and other Republicans have been making inroads.
Talking up arguments outlined in his 2022 book, Dignity in a Digital Age, Khanna makes a case for a more equal distribution of the wealth and work associated with new technologies, and for a “New Economic Patriotism” that employs planning and government investment to strengthen traditional American industries, develop new ones, and revitalize small towns and cities where workers feel they’ve been forgotten.
“There’s a way to talk about economic patriotism that doesn’t come off as xenophobic and driving toward a new Cold War,” Khanna told me when I interviewed him in Dubuque in early August. “I think that the most destabilizing thing would be for us not to become a thriving multiracial, multiethnic democracy—and that’s very hard to do if we don’t have much more of a sense of prosperity in places that have been deindustrialized or left out.”
Khanna thinks that the way to unify the country is by spreading prosperity to those places where workers feel the federal government has failed to address the fallout from factory closures and the collapse of Main Street businesses. He argues that it is vital to merge a well-established critique of economic disparity with a plan to renew communities where people are hurting. He believes that too many policy-makers in Washington have forgotten them. “I do think that the hollowing out of the industrial base and the supply chains hit both factory towns and some of these rural communities,” he explained to me after meeting with workers and local officials in Janesville, Wis., where 14 years after the closure of a General Motors plant people ask still asking about what comes next. “Economic patriotism gets that. It’s not deviating from Bernie’s message about jobs having gone offshore, plants having closed because of trade policies that didn’t take these towns into account. But it’s adding a focus on next-generation industrial policy and then linking social progress—providing childcare, health care, education—as part of that narrative of building America.”
A fan of Khanna’s argument, Jeff Shudak, the president of the Western Iowa Labor Federation, explained, “As someone with family, a home, and generations of deep roots in my community, I appreciate that Khanna understands the important of place. It’s not that easy for workers to just pick up and move when a job or a plant goes away.”
Assuring that federal policies and investments focus on aiding regions of the country that have experienced economic neglect and instability is central to Khanna’s vision. He’s worked with tech companies to move work to rural communities such as Jefferson, Iowa, and he’s been in the forefront of efforts to bring microchip production back to the US—and to make sure new plants are located in communities that have suffered deindustrialization. “If Democrats are the party of economic renewal, of economic patriotism,” he said, “I really do believe we can connect with people all over this country.” That’s an optimistic vision, to be sure. But, as Khanna knows, Democratic presidential candidates who win big—like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama—tend to be optimistic.