Joe Biden now stands alone as the Democratic Party’s presumptive candidate to run against the incumbent US president, Donald Trump, in November’s election. Officially, the suspense is over. But unofficially, it continues stronger than ever. One obvious reason is the chaos that affects all public activities due to the nation’s organized response to the coronavirus pandemic. Questions have emerged about the feasibility of conducting the election this year and even the possibility of Trump declaring an emergency to postpone or cancel it.
But there is a second reason. Some have called it a case of buyer’s remorse among many Democrats, who are more than ever aware of Biden’s weaknesses as a candidate. Speculation abounds concerning the possible replacement of Biden by another more forceful and more rhetorically — if not mentally — stable candidate.
Bernie Leaves a Path Behind Him
Apart from Biden’s uninspiring personality, a suspicion of corruption through nepotism, and his glaring incapacity to generate enthusiasm around his candidacy, the primary race revealed that the former vice president is unpopular with an important segment of the Democratic base: the younger generations who massively came out to support Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders has promised to campaign for Biden, as he did for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But that doesn’t mean his voters will automatically follow his lead.
Last week, eight progressive groups sent a message to Biden in an attempt to pressure the candidate and the party into adopting positions orientated not toward the past but the future. Here is the gist of their warning: “Messaging around a ‘return to normalcy’ does not and has not earned the support and trust of voters from our generation. For so many young people, going back to the way things were ‘before Trump‘ isn’t a motivating enough reason to cast a ballot in November.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The core idea frequently promoted by politicians who promise that, if elected, they will have the power to recreate an imaginary past, which they cast as far rosier than it actually was. The strategy tends to be effective in times of cultural decline.
The Democrats have insisted endlessly since the beginning of the 2020 primary campaign that this election is exclusively about one thing: beating Trump. Biden is now their presumptive candidate, selected because he was considered the most “electable” of the 20-odd candidates who were vying for the job. Mission accomplished! But they have begun to worry about Biden’s capacity to stand up to Trump. Many see him as a weak candidate, a poor performer, prone to gaffes and moments of incoherence.
If the Democrats are sincere about their pitch that the only thing that counts is defeating Trump, they don’t seem to have noticed the golden opportunity that Sanders’ departure from the race has offered them. There is now a transparently simple way for Biden to expand his catchment area for votes toward independents and Republicans, recapture the youth vote for Democrats and promote a theme that inspires enthusiasm.
All Biden has to do to guarantee a Democratic Party victory in November is to come out in support of single-payer health care. Already popular with a majority, single-payer health care has become even more credible in the midst of the pandemic. According to a poll by Morning Consult and Politico, “55% of voters support Medicare for All.” Even more significant is the fact that from “February to March, net support for single-payer health care jumped from 11 points to 20 points.” In just a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the gap of approval of Medicare for All upwards by nine points, and 52% of independents are now in favor of it.
In all probability, this is only the beginning of a trend, since the pandemic is expected to be present and developing for many months to come. A significant number of the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs since the start of the crisis will be in need of medical help, and they will have the occasion to think about what their sudden lack of coverage means. Aware of this growing problem, Sanders, in his role as senator, has already begun pushing an emergency initiative to deploy a version of Medicare for All for the duration of the pandemic.
If Biden were to become the champion of a permanent version of Medicare for All, he would not only gain the support of the progressives and the young who risk deserting him the way they did Clinton in 2016. He would also attract many of the independents and Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump and whose concern about health care is very real.
Biden’s stated position today, as he expressed it in a recent interview with Lawrence O’Donnell, is that universal health care is too expensive. But that could change. In the chess game that is just beginning, the former vice president has already timidly pushed a pawn forward one square. He has proposed “lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60.” In his “Plan to Safely Reopen America” published as an op-ed in The New York Times on Easter Sunday, Biden makes no mention of how he intends to respond to the health care needs of the people.
Unsurprisingly Sanders supporters perceived Biden’s proposal to lower the age of eligibility by five years as an insult to their intelligence, an act of elitist arrogance, the equivalent of Marie-Antoinette proposing that the poor eat “brioche” when there is no bread (“let them eat cake”). This is especially true now that voters — and not just “Bernie bros” — can perceive the economic and psychological cost of the lack of a uniform system of healthcare coverage for the entire population. Biden’s bean-counting cost argument (“How will you pay for it?”) has lost its initial credibility.
But Biden’s apparent failure to appreciate the scope of the crisis may be part of a clever game he’s playing, a strategy comparable to Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope.” In the days following Sanders‘ announcement on April 8, making the grand gesture toward the progressives would have sounded cynical as well as provoking accusations of flip-flopping. But by showing a small dose of clearly insufficient flexibility, as he has just done, Biden may be in a position to build the dramatic suspense leading up to an imminent and convincing Damascene conversion narrative.
Here’s how it could work. Biden immediately instills the idea that he is spending the next three or four weeks in deliberations with Sanders and others. It could even be his 40 days in the desert. Then, at the opportune moment, he emerges to announce his newfound commitment to a bold new vision of Medicare for All, accompanied by copious thanks to Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren for having opened his eyes.
In the midst of a tragic pandemic, Biden thus plays out his comedy in three acts that draws everyone’s attention. At first opposed, then ready to take a first step, finally, in Act III he triumphantly announces his intention to seize the historic moment. Biden thus appears as the humble but resolute visionary leader who will usher America into the new reality of a post-pandemic world.
This strategy would instantly have maximum impact on progressive voters in the runup to the August convention for the Democratic Party. They could no longer remain neutral. It would curtail the predictable strife that is bound to follow if Biden maintains his current cautious position. And it would ensure a massively favorable turnout from the younger voters in November. It might even have an effect on their parents as well.
It looks like a no-brainer that spectacularly broadens Biden’s base. But it is also extremely unlikely. So, why might it not happen? There are two possible reasons. The first is the debt that Biden and the Democratic Party owe to the pharmaceutical and health care industry. These highly-profitable businesses would not only stop funding Democratic campaigns; they would go all out to reelect Trump. As everyone should know by now, in politics money always has the last word.
The second is team pride. The Democratic Party establishment has been functioning as a disciplined team whose opponent has never been Trump or the Republicans. No, the real enemy is Sanders and his mutineers, who represent a contrary and unacceptable philosophy. Accepting Medicare for All would be a concession not just to the rebels’ policies but to their worldview. That would be an implicit invitation to a complete overhaul of the party. Far too radical… not because of its policies, but because of its disrespect for the existing power structure.
It should be noted that most of the corporate media are part of the Democratic team. They too may be fearful of losing vast swaths of revenue currently provided by the corporations most likely to be adversely affected by single-payer health care. How would they compensate for the lost revenue? A victory for Biden will already cause some damage to their balance sheet, since the personality of President Trump and his various abuses of power have been excellent for both their news and entertainment value. Everything Trump does has proved to be great for ratings. But if, in addition to the loss of Trump as a headliner, the media lose their revenue from health care-related industries, it would be an unmitigated disaster.
Health care has been the bane of Democratic presidents for the past 75 years. When Harry Truman attempted to impose universal health care in 1945, PBS reports, “the once-powerful American Medical Association (AMA) capitalized on the nation’s paranoia over the threat of Communism and … attacked the bill as ‘socialized medicine.’ Even more outrageously, the AMA derided the Truman administration as ‘followers of the Moscow party line’” (a line of reasoning most recently revived by Democrats criticizing Trump, Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard and others).
As the wife of Bill Clinton, the newly elected president in the 1990s, Hillary Clinton tried valiantly to launch an ambitious health care plan and was roundly sent home from school by Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Barack Obama, who was president from 2009 to 2017, had a chance to push a single-payer system through by appealing directly to a population favorable to the idea. Yet he preferred arranging things in the background in dialogue with the powerful industries who were inciting Republicans to raise the cry of “socialized medicine,” even when it turned out that Obama’s plan was based exclusively on privatized medicine. The result was the inadequate hybrid system that the US has today, founded on the idea of employer health insurance.
The principal argument during the Democratic primary season that preceded the sudden catastrophe of the coronavirus turned around an idea repeated ad nauseum by the “moderate” candidates, including Biden: People don’t want to give up their employer-sponsored health insurance. That view had already been discredited at a Town Hall organized by Fox News, where to host Bret Baer’s surprise, the audience endorsed the idea of shifting from private to public coverage. With the fiasco of unemployment provoked by the pandemic, the case for public health care is becoming clearer by the day.
Biden has a chance to mark history and position himself as a new Franklin D. Roosevelt, the author of the New Deal. The Democratic Party has an opportunity to prove it actually is about electability and beating Trump. The winning formula is there for the taking. Las Vegas hasn’t yet published the odds on whether that will happen. On the other hand, if it does happen, the odds on Biden winning would be overwhelming.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.