The Rashida Tlaib For President Scenario
There is more than one way to win leverage for Palestine.
As 2023 draws to a close, the left wing of American politics finds itself in its most familiar position: being told to suck it up and fall in line. An election year looms. The Democratic president faces a far worse fascist Republican rival. Then again, the Democratic president has also decided to fund and support a murderous carpet bombing campaign, killing thousands of civilians, setting the stage for a brutal ethnic cleansing. In service of that, Biden may soon resurrect some of the worst features of Trump immigration policy—the sort of features that had the entire Democratic Party up in arms not too long ago—in order to strike a deal for foreign military funding. Even as protesters fill the streets around the country, the Left finds itself mostly ignored in Washington. Their objections are met with the classic sneer: What are you gonna do, vote for Trump?
In the same way that simple amino acids are the building blocks of complex life, so too is this age-old conundrum of the two-party system the muck out of which the Left has always struggled to rise. Joe Biden’s 2020 election, and at least the first couple of years of his administration, are notable for the fact that he did open the door to the left wing of the party, giving it significant influence—something that was not often true with his Democratic predecessors. In May of 2020, after Biden had more or less clinched the nomination, he formed a “Unity Task Force” in which his people came together with people picked by Bernie Sanders to create a set of policy recommendations that definitively set the White House on course left of where it would have gone otherwise. Likewise, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and their allies had a hand in the selection of personnel that resulted in some picks that have been meaningfully more progressive than Biden-world would have naturally been. In a vacuum, if you had asked me in 2019, I would have expected the Biden administration to suck in the same basic ways the Clinton and Obama administrations did. That has not been the case, and it is because Biden allowed himself to be pulled left. That stuff matters.
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Things are looking grimmer going into 2024. The relevant question for us now is: Why did the Left manage to get real influence with Biden four years ago, and how can we make that happen again, fast? The simple answer is that in 2020, Bernie was running for president. Even though he lost, he ran a very competitive campaign. He had a large base of support. He had significant political capital. Biden, a man with little internal ideology, is a pragmatist, and recognized that a coalition approach would be stronger than waging an intra-party battle with disgruntled progressives. There were other factors at work, of course, but the main difference between now and then is that this time around, Biden was the anointed pick as the incumbent. There has been no competitive primary. There was not even an inkling of a serious progressive challenger. The Left, reasonably, was satisfied enough going into this election to feel okay about getting behind Biden for four more years. And then, in October, the blood began running, and the Left inside Washington has found itself powerless to stop it.
We are left to navigate between two intolerable things: on one side, the massacre of civilians that the Biden administration has facilitated and still supports, and on the other side, the possibility of getting Trump. It is true that a Biden loss to Trump would be a catastrophe, and should not be brushed off idly; on the things that Biden is good on, Trump is bad, and on the things that Biden is bad on, including Israel, Trump is worse. That doesn’t mean, though, that there is no political room for the Left to maneuver. The human stakes of what is happening in Gaza, and what continues to happen with each passing day, are too high to acquiesce to the dull-eyed DC creatures who insist that this is nothing more than a choice between bad and worse. The protests in the street will continue. But there is another tactic still on the table that, while risky, could be useful in saving a lot of lives.
We are a month away from the start of primary voting in Iowa. Super Tuesday is March 5, and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago is not until late August. I do not believe it would be possible to mount and run a successful primary challenge to Biden at this point. It would be possible, however, for a left wing candidate to launch an independent presidential campaign explicitly designed to suck votes away from Biden in key swing states—Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, etc. Any member of “The Squad” could launch such a campaign, but the most obvious candidate would be Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American in Congress, and the loudest and bravest voice speaking out against US policy on Palestine. So I will refer to this as the Tlaib Scenario, as shorthand. It would be a campaign created not to win the presidency, but to create negotiating leverage inside of the Democratic Party. “Listen to us,” it would say to Biden, “or we’re all going to hell together.”
Politics is not just a two-dimensional winner-take-all game between red and blue teams. When evaluating proposals like this, it can be useful to think less like a political pundit and more like someone who is negotiating a union contract. (Please unionize your workplace in order to understand this comparison.) One interesting feature of contract negotiations is that when the union rep walks into the room with the employer to negotiate, the ideal position for them to be in is that of the person saying, “I can only hold these maniacs back for so long!” In other words, it is valuable for the employer to believe that the workers themselves are a bunch of angry, irrational zealots, bent on retribution against the evil boss, who should be pacified at once before they do something crazy. Then, the union negotiator becomes the voice of reason, trying to help the boss navigate a safe path away from potential chaos. “I know the workers are asking for a lot of money here,” the union rep can say sympathetically, “but they’re pissed. They’re ready to strike. They don’t care if this whole damn company fails. Help me help you.” Sometimes this positioning is a bluff, and sometimes it’s not. What’s important is that you can get the boss to believe it. The idea that one side is willing to cause something irrationally bad to happen just because it would inflict pain on you is an extremely valuable negotiating tool.
Imagine, then, that Rashida Tlaib gets up on Monday and announces that she is running for president. She will make her appeal directly to the Left, to those voters most profoundly outraged by Biden’s support of the atrocities in Gaza. She will restrict her campaign to swing states, where the voting margins will be closest. She will pitch herself as a protest candidate. You no longer have to vote for a man who is facilitating genocide. A vote for her is a powerful, tangible statement to Joe Biden that he has crossed a moral line. It is a message to the Democratic Party that its foreign policy is beyond the pale. With no other true progressive candidates in the race, Tlaib would instantly become the vessel for all of the outrage bubbling among the leftmost voters in the party. She will aim to peel off, say, five percent of the vote that would have otherwise gone to Biden. Five percent is enough to cost Biden each and every one of those swing states, along with his reelection. He would lose.
We already know that there is significant anger over Biden’s Gaza policy among key voters in Michigan and elsewhere. The Tlaib Scenario would simply give form to something that already exists. It would make solid the resentment that is already inside the Democratic Party, and give it somewhere to go. It would also make clearer the fact that the Biden administration was creating this daunting electoral landscape with its own policy choices.
Today, the proposition to the Left is: Vote for Biden, as is, because your only alternative is worse. With a left candidate in the race, that proposition would no longer apply. You can be sure that a significant enough number of leftist voters would gravitate to a candidate like Tlaib. The relationship between the Democratic Party and the Left would then change. It would go from, “Biden is the best you have, so accept it,” to, “Biden needs to do something to earn the votes of those on the Left.” That change is significant.
Likewise, the negotiating leverage of Rashida Tlaib would change drastically. Today, she and her allies are relatively isolated, a minority inside the Democratic Party. (A growing minority, yes, but not growing fast enough to stop the bombs.) As a presidential candidate, she would become someone who held Biden’s reelection in her hands. Her ability to play spoiler would mean that somehow talking her down would become a necessary step in the Biden’s campaign success. He would be forced to deal with her. If Candidate Tlaib could extract a positive policy change that could save thousands of Palestinian lives, she could end her threat to undermine Biden and consider it a success.
And what would be the rational response from Biden, in this scenario? The rational response, with his own future on the line, would be to negotiate a meaningful enough change in his policy towards Israel and Palestine to convince Tlaib not to torpedo his reelection. Democrats could get mad about a left wing challenger to Biden, but ultimately math is math. If Tlaib could credibly threaten to pull five percent away from Biden in those swing states—and I think that she could—then they would need to negotiate with her or lose. And, after a lot of screaming, they would. The beneficiaries of those negotiations would be the Palestinians.
There is also the equal and opposite question of whether such a left wing challenge to Biden would be a bluff—whether, when faced with the very real prospect of a Trump win, the Left would fold and throw their support behind Biden even if they had not extracted any gains from him. Well, that is the perpetual question of all negotiations. They are a game of chicken. What we can say for sure is that if there is any elected leader who could credibly say that they are so morally outraged about Biden’s actions that they are willing to pursue a challenge to him to the bitter end, that person is Rashida Tlaib. If she were the challenger, the White House would certainly have to reckon with the possibility that she would not be bluffing. And they would be forced to act accordingly, in a way that they are not right now, in the absence of any left wing challenger.
What do I know? I am just some guy. Like millions of people around the world, I have watched the Biden administration’s thoroughly immoral actions in support of Israel’s war in Gaza in horror. I will go to the protests. But I can read the electoral landscape, and it does not make me optimistic that Biden will be forced to change his policy soon. If someone like Tlaib were to jump in, the calculation would become very different. Interesting to consider.
Previously: The New Leaders of the Left. Also previously: It Would Be a Shame If You Sacrificed All This Good Domestic Policy In Order to Kill a Bunch of Kids.
Yesterday, not long after a call for solidarity from Palestinian healthcare unions, the enormous healthcare union 1199SEIU, which represents 450,000 workers in the US, formally called for a ceasefire. That makes them, I believe the biggest union after UAW to have done so. I sincerely hope that more unions will join them soon—especially media unions, since dozens of journalists have been killed in this conflict.
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