Planning ahead for the transition to a Democratic post-Trump presidency may mean re-thinking how we think about the oval corner office and its org chart.
In his May 2018 cover story in The Atlantic, “The Hardest Job in the World,”, John Dickerson — the former host of “Meet the Press” and “Good Morning America,” still a member of the Slate “Political Gabfest,” a newly minted “60 Minutes” correspondent, as well as a presidential historian and podcaster in his spare time — made a persuasive case for why the modern presidency now exceeds the grasp of its occupant.
Alongside C-suite creep at the corporate level (Chief Joy Officer?), we now expect POTUS to be Commander-in-Chief, along with Consoler, Dealmaker, Immigration Officer, Treaty Maker, and Wildfire Chief -in-Chief. We have long since moved past the sublimity of Dickerson’s original argument and into the ridiculousness of the “I know more than the generals” trumpocracy.
Who would want this job? Many, many, many it turns out. We now have a swelling roster of Democratic contenders who feel up to this most expansive of job applications. It is a remarkably inclusive and colorful cadre who represent varied generations, regions, and passions. But as the line of skirts and suits forms for the debates ahead, it brings to mind the cautionary tale of the childish Republican whack-a-mole example we saw in the last presidential cycle, a name-calling nadir that likely turned likely voters off.
The worst possible outcome of a primary that boasts the most talented field in a generation is one where 1 nominee goes big and 20 micro-constituencies go home.
You can already sense the eyes-glazing-over moment many primary voters are experiencing as the Democratic sorting hat is passed. The Washington Post offered a filtering tool that revealed the contours of choice, but mostly through resume SEO. While a great piece in The New York Times traced the milieus — collegiate, public service, industrial, military, etc. — that winning candidates in 2018 were born into, sought out, or came upon while getting the hang of things. It’s all impressive, but a little bewildering.
Recently, taking stock of the field, and becoming increasingly disenchanted with simply playing the top and bottom of the ticket game, I had a thought. Indivisible, the non-profit who has mounted a pledge drive to have every Democratic candidate promise to become a worker bee behind whoever wins the nomination is getting traction. When Bernie Sanders signed first, many thought it was just his mea culpa for having hung on so long in 2016. But then a groundswell of other candidates fell in line. It’s a welcome barometer for the collegiality of the field, for now. But knives are sharpening.
The timing for the Indivisible pledge is perfect. We’re at a moment when aspirants need to play like a team if we’re all going to put Godzilla back in the ocean. Neither a last-candidate-standing primary or a magically delicious one-two general ticket is sufficient in 2020. We need an executive “rock” to counter the judicial “scissors” of our McConnell-packed courts. Which is why a ticket is no longer enough. We need to recruit and coach a dynasty like a Wooden at UCLA or a Belichick at New England, i.e. with our eye on multiple banners and rings. We need a franchise. We need a long game. And going long means going bold.
The best possible solution would be to not just talk about the generational change required but to pledge that outcome to the electorate beforehand.
If Trump can preordain SCOTUS nominees on the way in, there’s no reason why a Democratic nominee couldn’t present a complete, “indivisible” team — for their Cabinet and beyond — to the electorate upfront. Post-primary and pre-general let people know what to expect, across the board. It will require forward-leaning democrats (little ‘d’ intended, rivals welcome) to all sign on for the first term. No matter what role they’re asked to play, all would share common goals: clean up the mess, marshal our return to democratic norms, and restore our reputation among our international allies.
This is a much more interesting initiative to advance than a ticket lottery. One that could be readily funded too, if donors embrace the same consolidation impetus as the candidates and rise with the tide. United, citizens can roll with impunity.
But who plays what role in this franchise? And shouldn’t the only litmus be the capacity to beat Trump in 2020? As they say in improvisational comedy, “Yes, and…”. Winning in the near term doesn’t preclude drawing up a plan that responds to the every-100-years inflection point that Mayor Pete has used to frame this moment.
A great indicator of generational change would be a franchise that offered a trans-generational ticket with a built-in succession plan.
What if Joe Biden were the Democratic candidate, but he arrived with a caveat. “I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party to run for a second term.” Now do I have your attention? Joe selects a younger, progressive Vice President to serve in the role he understudied for eight years, grooms them to become the next two-termer, and then gracefully becomes an elder statesman at 81.
Joe has an expansive lead in the Democratic primary polling and an impressive advantage in a head-to-head with Trump in the general. Sure, it’s early. But it’s also instructive. Name recognition was critical to the reality show ascendency of our current demagogue. Progressives will surely balk at a nominating-to-win strategy. But it’s not playing it safe when you also announce the long game that your short game is setting up. Four years is a hunch, twelve years a save.
What if the anointed VP underperforms? We’re in this together; the tiles can shuffle. What if rotating four-year terms appeals as a sustaining strategy? Maybe we just line successors up like jets at O’Hare — and move progressive ideas and the candidates who best embody them, forward at a speed the electorate prefers.
If we are indeed entering a new era of norm raking, why not do as Matt Damon suggested in his role in The Martian, and new-norm the shit out of this.