Advice an Old Biden Hand Might Give

Boss, happy Labor Day. Hope this finds you well. We’re still in Edgartown and fully recovered from the virus. Betty had it worse than me, but right now I’m hearing the fierce thwack of the ball as she plays doubles and I’m in the pool house banging this out, so I guess we’re OK!

We’ve been watching you closely, cheering you on. You asked me to check in when I have advice. I hesitate because I know you’re inundated. I remember seeing old Bush at dinner in Kennebunkport in ’88, and he was grousing about all his friends telling him “be strong,” “show you’re tough on the trail,” but they never had advice on exactly how to portray “strength.” He sort of comically threw up his hands and said, “What do they want me to do, punch somebody in the face?”

So I know how it is. I’ll keep it short and describe what I’m seeing. We’ve never had a year like this—pandemic, economic contraction, cultural upheaval. Everyone has the jits. Summer’s over, they’re headed home to re-emerge into . . . what? The unknown. Normally people are kind of geared up for the fall, not bracing for it.

You’re good in the polls but I’m worried about the so-called shy Trumpers. The guys who work at the club—they don’t want to say when I ask who they’re for; it’s like they think I’ll get them fired or not give them a tip. And they know me! It’s all gotten so timorous.

I saw your speech in Pittsburgh and I have to be blunt about it, as we always are. You were strong in your condemnation of Trump, that malignancy metastasizing in the Oval, but it’s not as if people don’t know how they feel about him. He’s already vivid, I’m not sure you have to repaint the picture.

More seriously I thought there was a certain off-pointness and disconnect. I thought: This is a man with personal political problems he’s solving with words, as opposed to a leader speaking deep truth about the extraordinary problems that face us.

I think Trump got in your head with “He’s weak.” You felt you had to be what your aides tell you is the opposite of weak, which apparently involves indignation and sarcasm.

You said, in language that was seemingly direct, “Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” Joe, no one thinks you’re a radical socialist. No one. They’re afraid you’ll bend to crazy progressives when you’re in the White House because you’re Ol’ Joe and just want everyone to get along.

You addressed law and order and were right to address it. But there was an air of snottiness, even cluelessness. Addressing Trump supporters you said, “The murder rate now is up 26% across the nation this year under Donald Trump. Do you really feel safer under Donald Trump?” Covid has taken 180,000 lives; “more cops have died from Covid this year than have been killed on patrol. . . . Do you really feel safer under Trump?” The Republicans will repeal insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions. “Does that make you feel safer?” Trump will defund Social Security. “Do you feel safer and more secure now?”

You could have ended each refrain with “Jackass.” It was like late-career Bob Barker telling you the Price is Wrong.

This is no time for patronizing anyone. No one feels safe under Trump, because he’s a nut. This is a tragedy, not a wedge issue.

Some of your advisers are pols who came up in the days of Clintonian moderation and the Democratic Leadership Council. They’re our age. Their vision of the country is at least a generation old, as are the clichés with which they’re most familiar and comfortable. Some younger advisers are progressive or simply more attuned to the left. People sense a tug of war in what you say.

You seem way too afraid of progressives. Their rise has been slowed by the current and constant air of emergency. People want moderation, sanity, stability and competence now.

Stop trying to appease the left—that’s what makes you look weak. You’ll never make them happy, and if you lose they’ll dance on your grave: “Obviously an old-school moderate wasn’t the answer.” I wish they’d publicly denounce you but they’re too bright, and they’re playing a long game. They don’t care about 2020. It’s all about ’24 and it’s better for them if you lose.

I want you to think aloud honestly about big things. What do we owe the police in America? What function do they perform, what can help them do their jobs right? It’s not enough just to repeat, “I didn’t say we should defund the police.”

What about the racial drama sweeping the country? What is happening there, what does it portend? It strikes me as a real cultural upheaval. It’s not 1968, it’s something we’ve not been through before. The air of accusation and guilt—can we continue like this, with a nation daily at its own throat? Where do you want to go on race, and what path will get us where we ought to be? Saying you want an America where we all get along isn’t the answer to those questions, it’s a dodge. You might be thinking here: Come on, as if Trump answers those questions. But you’re offering yourself as an antidote to Trump. He is incapable of seriousness. Your seriousness—your thoughtfulness—would come as a relief.

On the pandemic, it was a mistake to say a while back that you were open to another lockdown. I know you’ve tried to walk it back. But get to Trump’s “right” on this. He’d open up everything but everyone knows he’s afraid to do anything and can’t persuade anyone, he just burps out thoughts and moves on. Joe, it would lift everyone’s spirits, make the economy zoom and people cheer, if you took an attitude of tough realism—if you said, “This is a fearful virus. We closed down the country to limit its lethality, we saved the hospitals, but guys. it’s been six months, we must rejoin life. Yes, with full caution—masks, hand washing, social distancing. And with suppleness. But we must live again.” Open the stores, the restaurants, be careful as hell but let the working man work. You and I came up in the age of lunch pail Democrats. I want to stand with them again. We can’t let this thing we have die, this land of a million businesses.

You want a message of unity and bringing people together. But it can’t consist of vague rhetorical stylings. Bring them together how? What is the higher purpose of this project we’re all engaged in? Americans are “an optimistic nation full of hope and resolve,” you said in Pittsburgh. They’re optimistic only when there’s a path and it makes sense to them. Otherwise optimism is just mindless sunniness.

I hope I haven’t offended. Next month I’m canvassing for you in Pennsylvania. Betty and I have made reservations for January 2021 at the Hay-Adams in Washington. They’re nonrefundable. I put my money where my mouth is. See you then, old friend.

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