A series of odd news cycles followed the end of the Democratic primaries, running right up until this month’s DNC. The most conservative politician, at least among the field’s viable candidates, had won the race and, in doing so, had directly repudiated an effort to realign the party and compel it to embrace a transformative policy agenda. For reasons that remain difficult to discern, many liberal pundits and commentators seemed to react otherwise: effusively speculating that Joe Biden, having spent more than four decades triangulating to the right, might actually be the progressive tribune America’s liberals had been waiting for.
Biden was no Bernie Sanders, but his proposals — or so the theory went — eclipsed anything that had appeared on a Democratic presidential platform before in the scope of their ambition. And besides, the recommendations that had emerged from a joint Biden-Sanders “Unity Task Force” (co-chaired by none other than New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) clearly showed the former to be a canny pragmatist willing to cede some ideological ground to the party’s progressive wing.
His history, record, and public statements notwithstanding, Biden has offered up plenty of evidence to suggest he’s not the crypto-left-winger or modern-day FDR parts of America’s liberal media brain trust have reflexively asserted: appointing neoliberal economist Larry Summers, raising unfathomable sums of money from financial interests, pivoting rightward with law and order campaign ads, pledging to fix the culture of corporate America by way of “nonlegislative” (i.e., nonexistent) action, and making the typical gestures centrist Democrats favor when engaged in their traditional election season pitch to conservative-leaning suburbanites.
Behind the scenes, figures in close proximity to Biden have also quietly signaled that key parts of the former vice president’s official agenda probably won’t see the light of day even if he wins. Last month, anonymous Democratic aides hinted to the Hill that the much-touted public option won’t be meaningfully pushed in the event of victory. And though the comment was hastily walked back, Biden confidant Ted Kaufman’s suggestion that a future Democratic administration would embrace an ethos of austerity rather than one of public spending (as implied by the campaign’s own official proposals) was probably more of a proverbial canary in the coal mine than many are willing to admit.
If all this weren’t enough, fresh reporting from the Washington Post’s Annie Linksy offers remarkable insight into the political calculus undergirding the Biden campaign as it heads into the most decisive stretch of a general election that is still very much its to lose. Following what is by now a familiar pattern, Team Biden is again signaling to its donors that the official Democratic platform is more a strategy for intraparty conciliation than a potential blueprint for governance. Though hardly a surprise, the explicit terms in which this is laid out to the Post are nothing short of remarkable:
When Joe Biden released economic recommendations two months ago, they included a few ideas that worried some powerful bankers: allowing banking at the post office, for example, and having the Federal Reserve guarantee all Americans a bank account. But in private calls with Wall Street leaders, the Biden campaign made it clear those proposals would not be central to Biden’s agenda. “They basically said, ‘Listen, this is just an exercise to keep the Warren people happy, and don’t read too much into it,’” said one investment banker, referring to liberal supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The banker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks, said that message was conveyed on multiple calls . . . The Biden campaign said the economic recommendations were produced jointly by supporters of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and were never intended as official policy.
Even by Democratic standards, this level of cynicism is breathtaking. Putting it quite charitably, the Post’s reporting characterizes Biden’s posturing as “flexible.” Though a better word might be “duplicitous,” this nevertheless offers a clue as to the kind of strategy activists will need to employ just to get a hypothetical Biden administration to honor what’s in the candidate’s own official platform.
Bernie Sanders failed to become the Democratic nominee for president, but the core of his analysis — that political victories are the product of mass mobilization and struggle from below — would still have been correct in the event he’d succeeded. Whatever we think is in their hearts, political leaders rarely pass necessary reforms, let alone transformative ones, out of instinctive deference to what’s written in platform documents or said rhetorically in the heat of primary contests that are watched almost exclusively by devoted party loyalists. Contrary to what many liberals mistakenly think, we don’t get progress through hashtag campaigns or by electing nice people who use the correct language and surround themselves with our preferred caste of celebrities.
Political victories have always been the product of confrontation whether those in power willingly endorsed them or not. Left activists and progressive Democrats could indeed make gains under a Biden presidency, but only by adopting an aggressive posture that issues bold demands and is merciless about compelling Democratic leaders to honor their stated goals. That starts with having no illusions about the kinds of things Joe Biden and those around him will probably be seeking to do if Donald Trump is defeated in November — and the legislative priorities that won’t be on their agenda without an aggressive struggle from below.