Joe Biden Could Save America by Going on a Train Trip
Fight for us, Mr. President. Is that too much to ask?
The Supreme Court did horrible things this week. They took away one right most Americans cherish (the right of women to control their bodies) and extended another that most Americans fear (the right to carry yet more guns to yet more places). Tomorrow they’re expected to to cripple our chances of fighting the future threat Americans fear most: the unfolding climate crisis.
But in so doing they provided an opening—a small but real one—to save the Republic. The Court’s rulings are immensely unpopular. If Joe Biden comes out fighting, he can change the overriding political topic away from inflation and toward democracy. He can make the midterms a referendum on choice, on guns, on climate change, and on coups. He’s been handed, in fact, the greatest political opportunity of modern times, because the right wing fanatics who dominate the Republican party are overreaching; after years of canny maneuvering they’ve suddenly led with their chin.
But taking advantage of that—saving America—requires two things
A clear and uncompromising stance on the filibuster. He needs to tell Americans in no uncertain terms that they should only vote for candidates who would ditch this archaic rule so that a Democratic congress could actually codify Roe, could actually enact sensible gun control (and not just the minimalist package of last week), could actually start rolling out (immensely popular) solar panels. Biden needs to say “I have served in the Senate most of my life. But the Senate is broken; it can’t defend what America wants from a berserk and out-of-control Supreme Court. We need control of the House, we need a real Senate majority that doesn’t depend on Joe Manchin, and we need that majority to matter.” You have to give people a reason to care; with the filibuster it’s business as usual.
A train. Biden needs to announce that in the 134 days between now and the November election he will not darken the door of the White House. Instead he and his advisors will board a train and criss cross America making the case for this republic. Biden famously loves trains. Americans love trains. And a train trip creates drama—suddenly he’s not a feeble politician mired with some of the lowest approval ratings in history. Suddenly he’s Harry Truman, waging an against-the-odds campaign in 1948. You know the last president to pull the presidential train car out of mothballs? A reasonably good politician named Ronald Reagan, in 1984. Amtrak Joe needs to go all-in.
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There is only one player in American politics who can grab out attention—but he has to grab it. For months Biden’s been a cipher, giving one-off good speeches after Uvalde or the Roe decision but otherwise letting tv coverage linger endlessly on inflation. Obviously he has to address inflation—which is why his train should have a car full of economists, rolling out whatever small-bore plans they can come up with to address what is essentially a global crisis caused by the end of covid and the start of the war in Ukraine. And obviously a car full of generals, updating him on the fight against Putin. At every stop—and Truman made 350 of them in that 1948 trip—he should remind people that the oil companies, who everyone hates, have used a war against fascism to rake in profits at the expense of American drivers. He should demand a windfall profits tax on Big Oil—something we might have if we didn’t have a filibuster—and he should remind people at every stop that the House last month approved legislation to stop price-gouging but that it can’t pass the Senate because…of the filibuster.
And at every stop he should remind Americans that Republicans attempted a coup—that they attempted to overthrow an election, and that they continue to support the guy who did it. You know that cop from the first night of the coup hearings, the one who was knocked out, came to, and—slipping in the blood of her fellow officers—tried to fight off the Proud Boys? She should be on the platform next to him. She should tell her story, over and over.
There are train tracks through New Hampshire, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, which are Senate seats we must hold. There are train tracks through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina, which are Senate seats we might could win. Wear those tracks out. But also go South, where people may boo you, and go West, and come to New England where people will line the tracks to cheer you on. Go everywhere. It’s a big country, but you’ve got 134 days.
Random speeches won’t do it—that’s what Donald Trump does, flies into some town, has a rally, moves on. You need a story line. You’re putting it all on the line. You’ve turned your life upside down to save ours. You’re seeing every inch of the beautiful nation you’re trying to save. It’s a drama, a man in a last-ditch battle for the America he’s spent his life serving. Harry Truman, whistle stop after whistle stop, said he cared more about “the common people” than about “the interests of the men who have all the money.” So do you. But so far mostly theoretically. Now’s your chance to get the hell out of Washington and prove it.
Don’t bring other politicians with you. Leave Nancy and Chuck and the rest behind in DC—we don’t like them that much, and anyway they’ve got a job to do. (Josh Marshall outlined recently precisely how Senators should make the filibuster the centerpiece of their campaigns too). Instead, bring along people that America actually loves. Let John Legend sing the national anthem at every stop one day and Kacey Musgraves the next and Bruce Springsteen the day after that. Look, Jimmy Buffett supported your presidential campaign—get him on the train. Sheryl Crow, Cardi B, Beyonce backed you in 2020—maybe ask them to join you for a day. You ever hear of Taylor Swift?
Giving all those speeches is hard work (I once did 28 cities in 30 days to launch the fossil fuel divestment movement, and it wasn’t easy but it worked). So no one will mind if you get hoarse; in fact, it will play. Say a few words, and then hand your script to someone who knows how to deliver a talk. Tom Hanks, maybe. Dude, Karamo! Jonathan Van Ness. America Ferrera. George Clooney. Your age—your frailty—becomes a virtue. You’re giving it all you’ve got. If you are really fighting for this country—fighting with everything you’ve got—then we will rally behind you.
I’ve been organizing older people at Third Act, and I know how desperate they are for someone to actually lead—they will show up in their thousands at every stop. You think the Sunrise Movement can’t turn out tons of kids if you’re promising to fight the filibuster and pass serious climate action? In the wake of these Court decisions and the January 6th hearings, we are desperate for someone with a plan, someone with some spirit. So far there’s nothing—just aimless protesting outside the Supreme Court, which we’re fully aware won’t accomplish anything. People aren’t going to vote because they don’t see the point, and it’s hard to argue with them; nothing worth doing can survive the filibuster. This country’s worst are full of passionate intensity (a Supreme Court justice wants to do away with contraception) and the most notable thing you’ve done recently is fall off your bike.
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But it’s not too late. We’re at the point in the movie where Rocky gets up off the canvas, shakes his head, and looks around for someone to hit. It’s got to be you—because you can say with full conviction: “I’ve given compromise and centrism and consensus-building every thing I’ve got. You know that’s who I’ve always been. But it isn’t working, because we’re up against an implacable right wing willing to overthrow democracy. If we want it we have to fight for it. And so I’m all in.” But you’ve got to throw the punches.
The alternative is to sit in the Oval Office, hoping that inflation falls, hoping that Joe Manchin cuts you a break, and hoping that someone else does the work of organizing us for the November elections. But nobody else can do it. You’re the guy. And if it doesn’t work—well, at least you’ve reminded Americans about trains. You took Amtrak more 8,200 times when you were a Senator. 134 more, Joe.
I love this, Bill, now hand deliver it to Joe, or get Heather Cox Richardson to!! PLEASE, a train is a great idea. I love trains and will go to any lengths to cheer for him and for wonderful Jill Biden
This is a great idea and like minded leaders and followers could join at each stop. We need something different and bold like this to change the narrative.