The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Democratic outsiders can jump the queue if Biden doesn’t run again

President Biden at the White House on Jan. 26. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Should President Biden decide not to seek reelection, the party’s strongest candidate in a general election would be someone you’ve barely heard of — likely a governor who can claim to be a credible outsider.

And if I were one of those Democrats, with lofty national ambitions but a low national profile, the last thing I’d be doing right now is waiting around for the field to clarify itself. Unusual times demand a bolder strategy.

In Democratic Washington, the thinking is (a) that Biden likely won’t run again and (b) that there are flawed but passable understudies poised to take his place. The list begins with Vice President Harris and includes previous candidates such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).

But that list of insiders spells electoral disaster. Because rarely has any governing party seemed so focused on so many things that so few voters are actually thinking about.

Washington Democrats have spent most of the past year speaking primarily to their Twitter base, hyping their own cultural revolution and pushing a vast expansion of federal spending while the broad center of the electorate grapples with the ongoing pandemic and rising prices.

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If you really want to nominate a national Democrat who has been a part of all that — especially after the carnage the party seems likely to suffer in November’s midterm elections — then hey, be my guest.

You might beat Donald Trump or some Trump wannabe that way — but you’re definitely making the job harder than it ought to be.

The better route would be to nominate an outsider who can credibly reboot the party, putting the focus back on the country’s future, rather than on the resurrection of the New Deal.

I’m thinking of a group of governors that includes Colorado’s Jared Polis, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, North Carolina’s Roy Cooper or Kentucky’s Andy Beshear. You might even add a glitzy governor such as California’s Gavin Newsom or a lesser-known commodity such as Connecticut’s Ned Lamont.

The problem, of course, is that governors have gone nowhere in recent presidential fields. Absent an incumbent, there are just too many unfamiliar faces in the field, not enough chairs on the debate stage. You end up sitting at the kiddie table, shouting pathetically to be heard above the noise.

Which is why, were I sitting in some statehouse mulling a presidential run at the moment, I’d be getting ready to make my move now, consequences be damned.

I’d be preparing to hold a news conference right after the November elections, where my message would be: I love and admire Joe Biden. But whether he runs again or not, our party in Washington has seriously lost its way. It’s not speaking to voters in my state, and someone needs to refocus it. So I’m setting up a campaign committee and taking my message on the road.

That would guarantee you the attention that’s hard to get once the campaign actually takes shape. National media would instantly anoint you as a spokesperson for the non-Washington contingent of the party, and you’d get months of coverage before any other outsider had the courage to jump in.

You’d be emulating the model of Bill Clinton, who toured the country in the late ’80s as an obscure, small-state governor, laying out a substantive critique of the party’s entrenched, backward-looking establishment.

Clinton, by the way, once told me that anyone thinking about running should give a series of speeches on the most divisive policy issues of the day. That way, once you really are a candidate, you won’t wake up every day wondering what to say.

There’s a critical difference, of course. Clinton made his case at a time when Democrats had lost three straight presidential elections and were seemingly on the verge of extinction. A similar candidate now would earn the wrath of his own party’s White House and its apparatus in Washington.

But here’s the good news: Parties have never been less powerful or less relevant than they are right now, and the White House can’t try to knock you down without instantly elevating your stature.

As for self-described progressives such as the congresswomen known as “the Squad” (a label my daughter and her friends gave up in sixth grade), let them fire away. Given the chance, the identity-obsessed, language-policing left would drive the party off a cliff.

Remember that, for all the noise, it wasn’t Sen. Bernie Sanders or Warren who won the 2020 primaries. It was Biden who argued for a more pragmatic approach and won.

That’s a fight worth having again. And the money move now is to be the one who starts it.