Biden's Progressive Gamble

Column: Will Americans sign up for fundamental transformation?

Joe Biden
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May 22, 2020

A few hours after this column appears on the internet, more than 30 liberal activists will meet online to plan your future. The gathering is called the "Friday Morning Group." It comprises, according to the New York Times, "influential figures at labor unions, think tanks, and other progressive institutions." These influential figures, the Times goes on, believe that when Democrats last had full control of the federal government, between 2009 and 2010, they did not "take the initiative in specifying plans for achieving large-scale change." They hope to correct this mistake. What happens on November 3 might give them the chance.

Buoyed by polls that show Joe Biden consistently leading President Trump, and jarred by the economic and social toll of the coronavirus, Democrats have become more ambitious. A "return to normalcy" no longer suits them. What is normal, anyway? It sounds privileged. Better to be bold. The digital headline of the article where I learned of the Friday Morning Group was, "Seeking: Big Democratic Ideas That Make Everything Better." (It will be awhile before Ahab finds that White Whale.) The title of a recent New York magazine profile says "Biden Is Planning an FDR-Size Presidency." Nancy Pelosi gave a hint of what might be in store with the $3 trillion spending bill she pushed through the House on May 15. Its cost and scope were too much for 14 House Democrats. They joined every Republican but one in voting against it.

Most of the defectors hail from swing districts that backed Trump in 2016 but sent Democrats to Congress two years later. It is no stretch of the imagination to read their votes as a warning to House leadership: The ambivalence that characterized much of the country's attitude toward impeachment also applies to coronavirus relief measures that are more about setting party priorities than resolving the crisis. Neither Pelosi nor Biden, however, has given any indication that the message was received.

Pelosi's cluelessness I can understand. She abandoned the center long ago. More puzzling is Biden's sudden-onset FDR syndrome. The presumptive nominee seems to be forgetting the lessons of his primary victory. Biden won the nomination by assembling a coalition that looked a lot like the voters who empowered the House Democratic majority: suburban women, moderates, African Americans. He did so by emphasizing his experience and steadfastness and by framing the election as a referendum on President Trump's behavior in office.

But he has spent the last several weeks moving toward the same woke progressives who collapsed after Bernie Sanders's sweep of New Hampshire and Nevada. Biden now promises "not just to rebuild the economy, but to transform it." He says he is compelled to "rewrite the social contract." This is the same man who doesn't know if his computer is on.

Biden speaks often with Elizabeth Warren from his basement shelter. Last week he invited Bernie Sanders to appoint co-chairs, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to six "unity task forces" that will recommend policies for a Biden administration. Recently he went out of his way to reiterate support for college sexual assault policies under which he would be found guilty of harassing Tara Reade, and to pledge that he would revoke the permit that Donald Trump granted to the Keystone XL pipeline. He is, says the Times, "eager for new ideas."

It does not bother progressives that these "new ideas" are quite old. They consist of more regulation, more taxation, more spending, and more giveaways to powerful interest groups, public sector unions in particular, in pursuit of a chimerical standard of equality. Been there, done that. Still, one does expect the Democratic nominee to advance the progressive agenda that he deems most viable. And it is (grudgingly) to the progressives' credit that they are thinking of policy at all. Some of us would like to hear Republican plans for the next four years. Own the libs, of course. But how exactly?

Perhaps the chest-thumping should not be taken too seriously. Perhaps it is part of a strategy to guarantee unity ahead of the Democratic National Convention, and to motivate left-wing voters who are not thrilled about Biden's candidacy. The Democrats do not want to repeat the scenes outside of the Wells Fargo Center four years ago. They do not want young people to be tempted by the siren song of Jill Stein. Coalition management is part of the job—a part that the incumbent has done well.

The test will be Biden's vice-presidential selection. He can go one of two ways. A candidate from the Midwest or South will signal that Biden is more interested in the middle of the country than the middle of the Democratic Party. One from Massachusetts or California or the media will suggest that not only is Biden worried about his left flank, he also intends to make good his promise of national transformation. In such a scenario Pelosi and Schumer would take the lead on domestic policy while Biden concentrates on foreign affairs. He would be there to cut the ribbon at the opening of a solar farm, but otherwise mark time until he announces he will not run for a second term.

This is a pleasant vision if you are a Democrat. It is also an elusive one. The public wants the government to help quell the virus and restore some version of regular economic life. It has given no indication that it endorses Elizabeth Warren's agenda. The activists detailing grand plans to national newspapers and magazines forget what happened a decade ago. It wasn't a failure of "initiative" that stopped them. It was voters.

Americans elected Barack Obama to handle the financial crisis, end the Iraq war, and express their sense of national unity. They started to rebel when he announced his goal of setting the country on a "New Foundation." By the end of his presidency, the Democrats had been routed.

It is the same old cycle. Every majority mistakes its electoral mandate for an ideological one. Every majority overreaches. Every majority is rebuked at the polls. If they win—and if we take them at their word—Joe Biden and the Democrats are setting themselves up for one heck of a fall.

Published under: 2020 Election , Joe Biden