As they struggle with the challenge of the most unpredictable—and unpresidential—president in American history, Democrats face a vexing problem. The leader of the other party is strangely charismatic, intensely verbose, apparently gaffe-proof, and constitutionally incapable of “politicalspeak,” the preferred lexicon of Washington, D.C.
This isn’t just some noteworthy personality quirk: It’s a central aspect of Trump’s appeal—key to his connection with blue-collar Democrats in places like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. It gives him an air of total authenticity in the eyes of a great many voters: What you see is what you get—whether you like it or not.
By setting off Twitter firebombs that go directly to the people, President-elect Trump not only dominates the news (and in particular the fake news) cycle, but also stymies his opponents. Democrats can’t process his spontaneous messages fast enough to counter with thoughts of their own, and they are further hampered by their own political considerations, which prevent them from engaging down on his level. (There’s little advantage for Chuck Schumer, for example, to call the next president of the United States “a clown,” even as Trump labels Schumer exactly that).
But there is one prominent Democrat who can match Trump blow for blow. Someone who speaks candidly and honestly. Someone with media savvy, policy expertise that his plain-spokenness makes accessible. Someone who, if my party is smart, they will find a way to deploy in a quasi-official role: It’s time to unleash Joe Biden.
The outgoing vice president is like Donald Trump, but only in the best ways. Biden instinctively knows how to connect with hardworking white Americans, especially those struggling in so-called “forgotten” blue-collar towns. Unlike Trump, though, Biden was born and raised in the middle class—he is, famously, a son of Scranton, Pennsylvania, a man who still feels pain as he recalls when, as a boy, his father told him he had lost his job.
Joe Biden is defiantly authentic, a man who leads with his emotions, and says (and does) exactly what he feels, moment by moment. Only the stubbornly good-natured Joe Biden could get away with invading the personal space of anyone in his path—Republican and Democratic officeholders, their families, their babies—as he has famously done at so many swearing-in ceremonies. Only Joe Biden could make ill-chosen comments about the race of Barack Obama—his infamous 2007 description of Obama as “articulate” and “clean”—and emerge from that not only as Obama’s vice president, but by all accounts, as a close friend.
No one can know with complete certainty how things might have been different for Democrats in 2016 had Biden entered the presidential race. But with the benefit of hindsight, I have a pretty good hunch it would’ve been better (at the very least, it’s difficult to imagine Biden losing Lackawanna County, as Hillary Clinton did). In his October 2015 decision not to wage a presidential campaign, we saw a glimpse of how Biden might have approached a presidential run. In the White House Rose Garden, in honest, self-deprecating Biden fashion, he told reporters, “I know that you in the press love to call me ‘Middle-Class Joe,’ and I know in Washington that’s not really meant as a compliment; it means you’re not that sophisticated, but it is about the middle class. It isn’t just a matter of fairness or economic growth, it’s a matter of social stability for this nation. We cannot sustain the current levels of inequality that exist in this country.” Even as Biden was entering his eighth year as vice president, he recognized that many people in America, including members of the Obama coalition, were still hurting. “There are too many … parents who don’t believe they can look their kid in the eye and say with certitude, ‘Honey, it’s gonna be OK.’”
This common touch might have prevented damaging mistakes like Clinton’s casual dismissal of Trump supporters as “deplorable” before a roomful of wealthy Democratic donors in New York. “I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies. They are our opposition. They’re not our enemies,” Biden said in his Rose Garden speech. “And for the sake of the country, we have to work together.”
As the Democratic Party scrambles for a figurehead—a spokesperson who can articulate a vision for the party and win back supporters in the “blue wall” states that Trump breached in 2016—Democrats have a much-needed second chance to pit these two pull-no-punches scrappers against each other. Somehow, Joe Biden needs to be in a position where he can take on Trump personally.
It’s a task he’s already embraced with vigor. Recently, after the president-elect took to Twitter to complain about “the many inflammatory President O[bama] statements and roadblocks” during the transition, Biden promptly responded on TV. “Grow up, Donald,” he growled, a brushoff worthy of Trump’s own Twitter account.
A good next step for Biden would be embracing Twitter, taking to the medium that Trump has made his de facto platform for all public statements. The Vice President is already one of the most recognizable presences on Twitter—having spawned a cottage industry of memes that play on his friendship with President Obama, his mischievous personality, and his fondness for aviator sunglasses. Come Januuary 21, free from the burdens of social-media consultants and layers of bureaucratic approval that can make Twitter accounts go stale, the former vice president himself should make @JoeBiden a destination for spontaneous, quick, caustic (and occasionally good-humored) parrying with Donald Trump and his surrogates.
This is not an endorsement of the vice president for 2020—as Biden himself knows, four years is a lifetime or more in presidential politics. But even if he is unlikely to mount a political comeback at the age of 77, Biden and his allies should keep speculation about his 2020 prospects alive to maintain his relevance in the national political debate. Should he choose to challenge Trump in 2020, they are separated in age by only four years. And besides, in an era where 83-year-old Chuck Grassley and 80-year-old John McCain get reelected to the U.S. Senate, who is to say it is out of the realm of possibility?
At this moment, as Democrats face down a new president unlike any other in American history, Joe Biden is the party’s best asset to articulate the concerns and needs of hardworking Americans. He is known in Washington for lending a friendly ear to Republicans and Democrats alike. His family’s personal tragedies have given him an important sense of perspective. His folksy, and sometimes off-color, remarks endear him to many. Almost unique among those in public life, he has a reservoir of goodwill with the American people. And, unlike sitting Democratic officeholders, he has little to lose by going after Trump directly and repeatedly, with strength and grace, for the next four years. He can be Trump’s biggest headache—because he actually is the champion of Middle America that Trump cynically pretends to be.