Last summer, John McCain told the world that he regretted not picking Joe Lieberman, the former senator and Democrat, to be his vice presidential running mate in the 2008 presidential election. A McCain/Lieberman ticket might not have won the White House, but it could have diverted us from the dangerous polarization now plaguing our political system.
Joe Biden should learn from McCain’s regret.
The former vice president is clocking in well above the closest competition in the latest 2020 presidential polls. And, as he said last week, he is the “most qualified person in the country to be president.” Yet in a Democratic primary he could be cannibalized by his own kind. Other Democratic candidates with more ambition than ability to win a general election against Donald Trump will inexorably and gleefully erode his standing by rehashing the Anita Hill hearings, pushing him to the left on domestic policy and endlessly reminding voters of his support for the Gulf War. Biden is the clear front-runner now—with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at 13 percent—but plenty of early favorites have ended up as also-rans (i.e. Jesse Jackson in 1988, Jerry Brown in 1992, Howard Dean in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008). Running in a Democratic primary could deeply damage Biden’s legacy.
Biden knows all this, and it has got to give him pause. He is one of our most esteemed and admired leaders. His favorability ratings have touched the 60-percentile range. He appeals to the kind of working-class voters Democrats have been bleeding to Republicans over the years. Most important, he could make a good president, and not just because he has a deep mix of domestic and foreign policy experience; he also has the character for the job. His eulogy at the McCain funeral was not just a riveting and poignant tribute to his good friend, but a testament to Biden’s own genuine grace and good humor. The speech salved some of the grief of those in our nation who worry that McCain’s passing has left a gaping hole in America’s moral fabric.
Now here’s what Biden should do next: Pick a Republican running mate in a “trans-party” third-party run for the White House.
Should Trump run again, this could be a “break-the-glass” moment for many Americans, creating an opening for a radical departure from our malfunctioning two-party political system. By injecting some ideological innovation into the process, we can break the hidebound precedents of two narrow parties running their ceremonious and illogical nominating process to select a candidate. (Why do Iowa and New Hampshire play such outsized roles? Why do independents, who outnumber both Democrats and Republicans, have only a binary political choice?) The system certainly suffered a critical failure in 2016, with both parties producing terribly flawed candidates in a race to the bottom.
The Democratic primary is shaping up to be cacophonous and chaotic. Biden should capitalize on his status as one of America’s most popular politicians, skip the risk and potential indignities of running and losing in what will be a vicious and mulish, leftward-lurching primary, and slingshot straight to the general election debate stage on a third-party ticket. Biden may not know it, but he is already well-positioned to win a three-way election outright. Here’s how:
Biden could run as the major third-party candidate with a principled conservative by his side (Lieberman, a one-time Democrat, technically categorized himself as an independent at the time McCain ran for president). A number of Republicans stand out: Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich and newly minted Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. Many past third-party bids have failed because they came from the lunatic fringes—think Jill Stein and Ralph Nader of the Green Party or Ross Perot with his quirky North American Free Trade Agreement obsession. Biden, by picking someone from the principled wing of the GOP, would instantly signal that he intends to run from the center.
And Biden, as a two-term vice president, has another characteristic past third-party candidates have lacked: enough name identification to make him an instant contender. Building the name to run nationally outside the two-party system is just too long and expensive of a process to accomplish in the 24 months before the 2020 election. Instantaneous recognition is crucial because the candidate must start out in striking distance in any three-way poll against Trump—who has the ability to command the news cycle with a single tweet—and a fill-in-the-blank Democratic nominee.
The top of the ticket needs to come from the center-left, because he or she needs to get a plurality of the vote in the blue states Hillary Clinton won (227 electoral votes), yet be moderate enough to win a plurality in some combination of Trump states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan (another 119 votes). A bipartisan ticket might even put purple states like North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana in play. A right-leaning candidate at the top of the ticket won’t work, though: He or she would meet the same fate as a primary challenger to Trump. Around 36 percent of voters won’t be cleaved from Trump under any circumstances, so the deep-red states would be off the table entirely.
What about policy? A Biden-led bipartisan ticket would pledge to serve a Cincinnatus-like single term and address all of the U.S.’s ticking time bombs like Social Security, Medicare, health care reform, climate change, money in politics, immigration, gerrymandering and infrastructure investment in four years. Why this pledge? It decouples a president from the demands of reelection politics while simultaneously easing concerns about age—Biden would be 78 on inauguration day. It also ensures governance unpolluted by campaign finance concerns and narrow special interests inherent to maintain a winning coalition. This ticket would promise to force decisions on all the underlying structural policy matters damaging America’s long-term prospects and distorting our democracy. No more kicking the can down the road.
Biden and his running mate could also promise to break through the debilitating stalemate on Capitol Hill by pledging to push for laws that reflect the will of simple majorities in Congress. Recent Congresses allow bills to move forward only when a “majority of the majority” in either house supports the policy, leading to gridlock and deepening partisanship. On many levels, this seems fundamentally undemocratic, and it makes the public more cynical about their representatives—the same widespread bitterness across the country that got us an unqualified, outsider president like Trump with his vows to bust up Washington.
A third-party presidency would be genuinely disruptive. Today’s ironclad party discipline could well break down, and moderates on both sides could form a powerful, decisive block willing to work with the new president. The policies passed into law may not be ideal for either Democrats or Republicans, but that’s precisely the point: The major agenda items that must be addressed for America’s long-term fiscal health require each party to make sacrifices.
And if no candidate secures 270 electoral votes in a three-way race for the White House? The House of Representatives would choose the next president. In 2016, Michael Bloomberg apparently declined to run on a third-party ticket for fear of splitting support from Hillary Clinton and throwing the election to the House. The fear was that the GOP-controlled chamber would have just elected Trump.
Yet Democratic control of the House may not be a roadblock to a second Trump presidency. No matter which party has the speaker’s chair, the GOP would certainly have the upper hand as the GOP has the majority of seats in far more states than Democrats. Would the members of Congress from various states choose to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their own states, or make their own calculations as to who is best for America? Precedent suggests a secret ballot, so individual lawmakers may vote their consciences. This scenario may not be terribly reassuring for those seeking a surefire means to keep Trump from a second term. But throwing the election to House seems just as risky as relying on the Democrats to nominate someone who can win 270 electoral votes.
Done right, a Biden-led, third-party bid with a TV-savvy campaign team and a pledge to serve only four years with a nonpartisan agenda could win outright. Americans can manifest their support for such a third-party campaign in the same way they have contributed to a yet-to-be-nominated Senate challenger to Maine Senator Susan Collins: by pledging to donate only if he runs, and with a Republican running mate. So far, a putative Collins challenger has already raised at least $4 million in pre-loaded campaign funds, with more on the way. A fund like this would be crucial for Biden or any third-party bidder, as gaining access to 50 state ballot takes time and hard work—which means money.
Do I expect Biden to embrace this idea right away? No. Right now, only polls showing a third-party candidate winning a plurality of votes in some configuration of states adding up to close to 270 will upend conventional wisdom. I would wager a lot that something like a Biden/Romney ticket would have a shot at doing just that. With 2020 now in range, pollsters will be fielding all sorts of candidates in the coming weeks. Let’s see how this and other atypical tickets fare. If this type of bipartisan ticket appeals to voters, everyone will notice—including Biden—and those in a position to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the effort.
I know: It sounds crazy. But the narrow path to electing Biden as the first president outside the two-party system in 168 years is more navigable than most think. Just look at the numbers. A historic high of 61percent of Americans would like to see a third-party bid, according to Gallup. Trump’s approval rating is holding steady below 50 percent. The Democratic Party seems to be drifting inexorably leftward, suggesting an opening in the center.
Legacy political strategists will say that the structural impediments of ballot and presidential debate access, the overwhelming advantages of the two parties’ fundraising and voter turnout operations preordain failure. But they were wrong about Trump and they’re wrong now; with the right candidates, these legal and logistical hurdles are surmountable. All it takes is lawyering and money.
Biden said recently that he is willing to “break his neck” to make sure Trump doesn’t serve a second term. That maybe a bit of a malapropism (Biden’s characteristic gaffes are part of his charm), but it’s accurate to say that something may have to be broken to ensure Trump isn’t re-elected—it’s the two-party system.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Juleanna Glover