Joe Biden knows football. He was a star running back at Archmere Academy, and at the University of Delaware, he was one of the Blue Hens’ stalwart defensive backs. As a defensive back, he assuredly knows what a prevent defense is. He assuredly knows why you might use it, and why you might not.
A prevent defense is the defense you employ when you are winning a football game in the fourth quarter. You take out your blitzing rushers who were getting you sacks and run stops, and send in seven or eight speedy defensive backs to cover all the long throws the quarterback tosses toward the end zone. You’re willing to give up the runs and the short passes as long as the clock doesn’t stop and the receivers don’t catch the long bombs. It’s a tried and true strategy when you’re up and you don’t want to end up down.
Except, as legendary coach John Madden once said,
“All a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.”
The prevent defense loses by putting the ball in the hands of the opponent, letting them rack up small victory after small victory. Small victories count. They tell a desperate team that they can win. Meanwhile, the defending team watches the opponent chew up yards and back them toward their end zone. It demoralizes the team that’s ahead until it isn’t any more.
Joe Biden knows this first-hand. On January 7, 2011, the vice president was in attendance as his beloved Blue Hens lined up against the Eastern Washington Eagles in the NCAA Division I Football Championship game. Up 19–0 late in the third quarter, all Delaware had to do was prevent the Eagles from scoring. Even if you’re not a football fan, you can see where this is going. Eagles QB Bo Levi Mitchell ignored the downfield DBs, landing short pass after short pass en route to a 20–19 win over Biden’s Blue Hens.
If you take nothing from that paragraph, take these two things:
- there’s a team that calls itself the Blue Hens with a straight face, and
- any lead can be overcome in the final quarter if the team that’s ahead lets the other team control the ball.
It’s August, and Biden is up at the end of the third quarter. He’s currently sitting on a lead of at least 7.5 points over President Trump nationally, and is ahead or tied in all the important battleground states. He has a dozen routes to victory. Short of his threat to delay the election (which gets him President Patrick Leahy), Trump only has one.
Unfortunately, it’s the one that he used to degrade Hillary Clinton’s similar (though not quite as big) summer lead in 2016: be a racist, cause chaos, solicit help from Russia, disenfranchise voters. This one comes with a horrific new development: the dismantling of the U.S. Postal Service in the lead-up to a mail-in ballot election. Republicans are going to cheat in broad daylight in a desperate attempt to retain their thin majority. Every small victory they get will inspire them even more. They don’t even care if people die, as long as they win. This is not a team that will just lay down in the face of a big deficit. After finding trillions of dollars for their donors in the middle of a pandemic, it’s clear they barely know what a deficit is.
Faced with an undermanned but desperate opponent, Biden has done… well, very little. While it’s not true that he’s “hiding in his basement,” as Trump says, Biden is letting Trump control the airwaves. Trump is an incompetent fool at the worst possible moment, so letting him kill his own chances sounds like a good idea.
But Trump has the ball. The more attempts he makes, the more chances he has to score. He might not. But he definitely can. Today, with Congress deadlocked, Trump signed four questionably legal but likely popular executive orders on unemployment, evictions, student loans, and the payroll tax. That’s a chance for Trump to score. Biden needs to find his.
Take, for example, New York Attorney General Letitia James’s decision to go after the National Rifle Association’s corrupt leadership. If she had said she was going to try to dissolve their governing board, at least half the NRA members would’ve supported her. For years, that board has existed to line the pockets of professional ghoul Wayne LaPierre and friends at the expense of its members. But that’s not what she said. She decided to try to dissolve the NRA itself. Instead of rallying gun wackos behind her efforts to throw the rotters out, she turned them into an army against Democrats. There was much wailing and garment rending from the politerati.
Trump pounced on an opportunity to reverse his ratings skid. He tweeted
That’s an opportunity to play offense. Left unchecked, Trump’s excoriation of the New York AG’s aggressive approach might cost Biden some percentage points. With the electoral college stacked against Democrats, those are points he can’t afford to lose.
Now, a conservative approach to this controversy would be for Biden to say, “Well, I don’t like the NRA board one bit, and they don’t like me—they gave me an F, don’tcha know—but the Second Amendment is a constitutional right and the believers in that right should have a group that represents that position. So, no, I don’t support dissolving the NRA.” That’s the prevent defense approach and I expect Biden to take it if asked.
But here’s what someone still playing offense would say: “I can see why some ardent supporters of the Second Amendment are up in arms, so to speak. But look, this organization is a criminal fraud that’s basically a Russian front. The members deserve an organization that doesn’t cheat them blind and support the mass murder of children on a daily basis. They should make a new one, because this one is about to be blown off the stage forever. I support the complete dissolution of the NRA. Go get ’em, Tish.”
A campaign playing offense doesn’t worry about what the other side might think. Democrats hate the NRA, so Biden would gain a lot of points with people who support his positions. He’d lose some Republicans, but that number would pale in comparison with increased turnout from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which wavers on him too much for comfort. Get all the Democrats to vote Joe, and Joe can’t lose.
Or, hey, how about that problem with the U.S. Postal Service. A campaign playing defense would put out a press release supporting voting rights, which Biden did. A campaign playing offense would get its House allies to impeach Postmaster General Louis DeJoy this week. Let the Republicans in the Senate struggle to justify throttling the most popular government agency during a pandemic. I’m sure that’d be a winning platform.
If the Republicans are playing to cheat, it’s time for us to play to win. Encourage every Democratic legislature to pass a law that, in keeping with the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that faithless electors can be punished, the punishment is 30 years in prison. Have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blanket TikTok with videos targeting those protesting the Trump administration’s ban. While the Trump campaign is knocking on a million doors a week, don’t settle for your campaign knocking on zero. Indict—not impeach, indict—Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham for ending the decennial census early to intentionally undercount Black and indigenous Americans. Don’t let Trump win the ad war with Gen Z voters. Coordinate governors’ responses to COVID-19 as if he is already president. Back Medicare for All after the collapse of the health care system. Propose a ten-trillion dollar infrastructure campaign to rebuild after the crash. Show up for the convention in Milwaukee, for Pete’s sake.
Showing a commitment to winning is critical, and it shows up most significantly in Biden’s halting selection of his vice presidential nominee. It’s cool that he committed to selecting a woman as running mate during the March debate; that ended Bernie’s campaign for good, if it wasn’t dead already. (Though, wow, doesn’t Andrew Yang look like a fantastic choice now? Man’s basically a prophet. But I digress.)
But which woman? We’ve seen the news media and political Twitter try its best to chew up every choice in the most sexist manner, especially the African American ones. To these Democratic critics, Sen. Kamala Harris is too disloyal and is too ambitious; Ambassador Susan Rice is too foul-mouthed and maybe too rich; former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams wants the job too much; Rep. Karen Bass is too friendly with Communists and Scientologists; Rep. Val Demings is actually a cop. Meanwhile, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Duckworth get praise for taking on their sexist critics, but the African American women must step gingerly or be cast aside. Not great.
A campaign playing defense would pick whichever of these women (or others) would not upset the apple cart. Even though she’s as much of a fighter as Elizabeth Warren, no one could imagine Gretchen Whitmer riling up the Republicans against her. She’d be Tim Kaine II. That doesn’t make her a bad choice, to be clear. She’d probably be a great vice president, and later president, perhaps. But there’s nothing in her story that is going to be a lightning rod for the campaign. Outside the Upper Midwest, the needle won’t move, and that might be what the campaign wants at this time.
Susan Rice? She’d set the needle on fire. Republicans would trip over themselves setting up more Benghazi hearings. The media would go crazy trying to make her lack of electoral experience a story. But she would tear Mike Pence into pieces in a vice presidential debate. Michelle Obama would be at every one of her campaign stops, high-fiving her and roiling the crowd into a frenzy. Susan Rice would have some quotes, let me tell you.
It’s not my place to tell Biden which running mate would put him over the line, or if any of his choices would. He’s probably not looking at a Sarah Palin apocalypse no matter who he picks. But I can guarantee him that his choice will be viewed through the lens of whether he’s trying to win or trying not to lose. And that will matter.
Even if Joe wins, it matters greatly how he wins. It is clear that a squeaker one-point win like Eastern Washington got over Delaware nine years ago will not do. Trump has laid the groundwork for cheating enough to gain a house advantage, flooding the channel with October surprises, and contesting the election if it’s close. He’s going all out. Biden can too. Georgia, Texas, and Ohio are in play if Biden is willing to seize them. The Senate might even flip, as might statehouses looking at post-census redistricting. A win is important, but an overwhelming win is vastly more important. The GOP needs to be put out of business for entertaining fascism as a platform. All of that is on the table for an aggressive campaign.
On the other hand, taking a knee on the 50-yard-line at the start of the fourth quarter is suicide. Biden knows that. Let’s see if he shows it.
This is the 61st installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, unemployment, rioting, the Klan, the Confederacy, and the GOP 2020 strategy.