Nelson W. Cunningham has worked for Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and John Kerry, and he was an adviser to the Clinton-Kaine campaign. He is president and co-founder of McLarty Associates, an intern ational strategic advisory firm in Washington.
The Democratic Party, reeling after its surprise loss Nov. 8, seems about to embark on a war for its very soul. The first battle of this war over the meaning of the election and the party’s direction is the coming election for chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), an African American Muslim from deep-blue Minneapolis — and the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — has quickly become the standard-bearer for the left. He garnered support from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and congressional leaders, and is promising a clear turn to the left. Howard Dean — who won this contest as an insurgent in 2005 after another lost election — is also running. This time, though, he’s representing the establishment and the voice of experience. And there are others across the spectrum jumping in.
This fight promises to be nasty and to embroil the party, too early, in a fight over policy direction. Should we turn inward or outward? Reject globalization or embrace it? Run as a party of inclusion or exclusion? Of trade or of walls?
But we don’t have to have that fight right now. There is a consensus choice, right under our noses, who could unite the party across its broad spectrum, who could speak to coastal elites and heartland stalwarts, whose popularity across all the Democratic demographics is sky-high.
There is Joe Biden.
Son of Scranton, Pa., former internationalist chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, champion of civil rights and women’s rights, friend of cops and of Black Lives Matter protesters, supporter of the working man who commands the respect of chief executives, wildly popular vice president who was encouraged to run for president himself this time around — Biden should be our immediate and consensus choice.
Biden’s bona fides for the office are not open to debate. (Full disclosure: I worked for him in the Senate.) That leaves two questions: After an election that many have called an election for change, is a 74-year-old career politician so tied to Barack Obama — and Hillary Clinton — the right leader for the party? And second, would he accept?
As for the meaning of the presidential election, it was not clearly a “change” election — certainly not for Democrats. Hillary Clinton won the nomination as the heir to 24 years of center-left leadership by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. And in the general election, well — she actually won the general election when it comes to actual votes. So as far as the actual voters are concerned, a narrow but clear plurality voted for Clinton’s continuity over Donald Trump’s change.
But how about the electoral college, and the impact of the battleground states? The fact that Trump swept almost all of them — doesn’t that mean we had a vote for change? That argument misses the exceedingly narrow circumstances that led to Trump’s victory. In the three crucial states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan (total electoral votes: 46), Trump won by 1.2 percent or less — by a total of just more than 107,000 votes combined.
So was this a change election, or a vote for continuity with Obama’s leadership? It’s frankly just too early to tell, especially for Democrats — and that’s precisely why the Democratic Party should delay making this call until all the lessons have been learned. We need someone who can speak to all wings of the party, can lead us now with confidence and guide us through the parlous process of picking our direction. Again: Biden.
So to the second question: Will he do it? We all know that Joe Biden is a man of duty and honor, who loves his country and his party. It has been more than a year since the loss of his son Beau, a tragedy that steered the vice president away from announcing his own run for the presidency. Why not honor his son, his party and his country by continuing his service? Instead of the metaphorical rocking chair on the beautiful, broad porch in Delaware — why not get back out there on the hustings he loves, as a leader for a party in need of healing?