The case for a national unity ticket

Will Biden drop out?  Should he?  What then?

To run or not to run

So far Biden seems determined to stay in the presidential race.  He and his campaign have worked hard to tamp down any talk that he might step aside. 

Yet there is a reasonable chance he will step aside, especially if his polls drop.  If he stays in and loses, he will have to live with the fact that he lost one of the most consequential elections in American history.  Just as important, he will not become a revered elder stateman.  He will be vilified by Democrats and very, very alone.  There will be no rehabilitation and no second chances.  It will be a deeply painful retirement for an ambitious man long accustomed to public adulation.  And the wrath of Democrats will fall on his family and closest friends and aides as well as on him personally. 

So it is conceivable that Biden will step down. 

I am not sure if Biden should step down or not, because I don’t know if the Democrat who replaces him would have a better chance of winning in November. 

The issue here is not just whether Biden drops in the polls in the next week or two.  To be sure, a substantial drop in support would strengthen the case for a new nominee.  But even if his polls hold steady, we still need to ask if Biden will be able to vigorously prosecute the case against Trump.  His scripted appearances so far – using a teleprompter in front of friendly audiences – do little to ease my concerns.  On the other hand, even if we lose confidence in him, we still need to ask if whoever takes his place will be a stronger candidate than he would be.  The uncomfortable truth is that Biden may be the best option on offer despite his serious limitations.

A national unity ticket

Although I am not sure if Biden should step down, I do believe that if he does step down, the Democrats should put forward a national unity ticket.  By a national unity ticket, I mean a ticket with 1) a Never Trump Republican in the VP slot and 2) an explicit commitment to only pursuing policies that will win broad support from the American people. 

Democrats need to focus on winning over Republicans who disapprove of Trump and potential RFK and Libertarian party voters in swing states.*  A national unity ticket would give the Democrats credibility when they ask Republicans to vote for them for the good of the country.  Putting a Never Trump Republican on the ticket will make clear that Democrats reject Trumpism but regard traditional Republicans as loyal Americans despite our differences over policy.  A unity platform – one that explicitly disavowed controversial policies and embraced compromise – would do the same.  It would assuage the fears of Republicans who – rightly or wrongly – distrust Democrats on critical issues like immigration and the economy.  It would make it clear that Democrats are not seeking to leverage fears about Trump for narrow partisan advantage.  Their fears for American democracy are sincere.

Biden was tacitly a national unity candidate in 2020 – a Democrat, a familiar, older white male unlikely to do anything too crazy, committed to unions and sympathetic to workers in the industrial heartland, mainstream views on criminal justice, etc.  Without Biden on the ticket, the outreach to voters who favor an incremental approach to policy change or who reject the more progressive parts of the Democratic party’s agenda needs to be more explicit. 

A national unity platform would require compromise on policy demands and rhetorical modesty, not policy maximalism and calls for revolution.  A unity platform would have to endorse compromise on immigration policy.  It would have to put aside controversial policies like a wealth tax and reparations for black Americans.  It would need to scale back or postpone plans for a significant expansion of the welfare state, although some progressive policies in this area (like an expanded child tax credit) could be part of a unity agenda. 

The Democrats will give up little of importance on policy by embracing compromise and putting aside their most controversial policy proposals.  Many Democratic positions are highly popular and could be part of a unity platform.  Abortion is an obvious example; preserving Social Security and Medicare is another.  More fundamentally, even if the Democrats win a trifecta – highly unlikely – Congress will be closely divided and the Democrats will need Republican support for their policy agenda.  Without a trifecta Republican support will be even more critical.  Incremental change will be the best Democrats can hope for.**/***

A unity ticket would upset party activists, but Democratic voters would be just fine with it.  Black voters were happy to support the centrist Biden in the South Carolina primary in 2020, and Democrats around the country were happy to follow their lead.  What Democratic voters want is to feel that they can win.  A unity candidate would be more likely to win than a candidate running a standard campaign and would not do any worse at achieving democratic policy goals if elected.****

I do not deny that the policy differences between Democrats and Republicans are real and important.  But this election is not the time to put these differences front and center.  This election should be framed as a choice between Trump and his minions and people of both parties who reject his corrupt view of government.

*What about the risk of losing highly progressive Stein/West voters?  There will be very few Stein/West voters in swing states, because voting for Stein/West is deeply irrational.  For this reason, Stein/West voters will be very difficult to win over.  The fact that a national unity ticket might be off-putting to a small number of unpersuadable voters is not an important reason to reject it.

**A Republican VP committed to bipartisanship could conceivably help keep congressional Republicans from engaging in a campaign of obstruction, though any prediction here is highly uncertain.

***Remember that the ability of a Democratic president to make policy through executive branch agencies will be reduced by the recent string of anti-agency Supreme Court decisions.

****I also believe that Democrats will do better in the long run – they will achieve their main policy goals faster and to a greater extent, and will have a better chance of becoming a dominant party – if they stop making grandiose promises to voters, promises they inevitably fail to keep.  But I will not argue this here.