Since the Democratic presidential debate last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has fallen from 18 percent to 14 percent in the national CNN poll, stayed flat in the Morning Consult/Politico poll and dropped all the way to 9 percent in Iowa, a state in which he got 49.6 percent of the vote in the 2016 caucuses. He raised $18 million in the second quarter of 2019, $7 million less than the mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Sanders is delivering virtually the identical message, in virtually the identical cadence, from his 2016 campaign. It is fair to conclude that either voters are tired of it, craving change, or that an old white guy screaming about socialism isn’t a winner in today’s Democratic Party. Either way, I cannot think of a candidate in this field less willing than Sanders to adjust to changed circumstances. I find it improbable he will win, and frankly, I’d give that South Bend mayor, Pete Buttigieg, who’s still an unknown to most voters, a better chance of winding up in the top three or four candidates.
Joe Biden has been running a general election campaign with less contact with the press and fewer events than any of the top candidates. He was rusty in the debates. Standing next to another septuagenarian at the debates didn’t help; they were a matched pair of pre-Trump Democratic Party relics.
Biden, unlike Sanders, has center-left, workable policies on matters such as climate change and education, but then again so does everyone else. He decries President Trump’s chaotic foreign policy, but so do others. He talks about a public option for health care, but so does Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), among others. He talks about restoring American values and giving children a role model, but lots of women and nonwhite voters hear the same reaffirmation of values from other candidates and see women and nonwhite role models that speak to their own lives and experiences.
So what’s a competent, moderate candidate such as Biden to do in a field of 24? Advice is free, but here goes:
1. Do multiple events on multiple days in the week, portraying vigor and getting back in his groove.
2. Don’t ignore the press. Why not present a tribute to the late John McCain with a Straight Talk Express bus tour, during which he can talk and talk and talk. A disaster? One theory is that when Biden says a lot, each individual slip doesn’t matter as much and, in any event, the press becomes more sympathetic. Hey, why not? Avoiding reporters isn’t helping.
3. Adopt a theme that is something other than “Get rid of Trump.” Before he decided in March not to run, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) had the “dignity of work," which sounds sensible and distinguished his concern for effective, no-nonsense plans from Ivory Tower schemes that won’t get through Congress.
4. Biden’s big asset is that he knows how government works and how to fix it, yet he doesn’t show how that knowledge could affect voters. He could vow that under his presidency, the federal government could commit to hiring 20 percent (or whatever) of its workforce in the heartland for jobs that otherwise would be filled inside the Beltway (telecommuting is a thing, now). Biden could promise to ram through the Equality Act to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, increase diversity in hiring and reduce the number of political appointments so the critical ones get confirmed and we get rid of the “actings.” No more shutdowns and debt-ceiling crises.
Biden could get creative. Why does the Labor Department have to be in Washington? Move it to Michigan. Why isn’t the Interior Department closer to tracts of federal land and major national parks? Put it in Colorado. Make government work for Americans and bring government jobs, resources, etc., closer to where people live.
In foreign policy, no more open-ended authorizations of military force, no more cutting Congress (and hence voters) out of the loop on military action, and in the first year get us back into and improve trade agreements, the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and others.
Biden may not be what voters, especially young voters, are looking for. However, he should tell them who he is — the one candidate who plausibly could make government functional and repair the damage Trump has done in foreign policy. But he better do it quickly before Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) comes out with a plan for that.