Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign on April 8. It’s easy to forget, preoccupied as we all are now with the coronavirus and protests across the nation against police violence, what a precipitous fall this was. For a brief period after his smashing victory in the Nevada caucus on February 22, it was almost universally assumed that he would be the Democratic nominee. “Bernie Twitter” was ecstatic. Folks I know in the moderate wing of the party were beginning to make peace with the idea and preparing to support the independent Vermont senator’s bid for the White House.
Then on February 29, exactly one week after Nevada, Joe Biden crushed Sanders in South Carolina. Three days later, in the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries, Biden won ten out of fourteen contests, many by quite large margins. And that was that. I’ve been writing about Democratic primaries since the 1988 race, and I don’t recall a single one in which the apparent end result flipped so emphatically and suddenly.
It’s hard for any politician to make the mental admissions to oneself required to end a presidential campaign; for a candidate like Sanders, who called for political revolution and seemed to have victory so near that he was surely daydreaming about the list of speakers at his convention, I imagine it was particularly hard. The struggle to accept defeat extends to supporters—perhaps doubly so with some of Sanders’s strongest supporters, who vocally detest the Democratic Party, people who call themselves liberals, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, and basically anyone who isn’t Sanders (or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
But even as some of his supporters were digging in their heels, scrambling to knock Biden out, Sanders himself was suing for peace. Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s well-regarded campaign manager, told me that, as the senator ended his campaign, he made clear that cooperation would be the order of the day. “Senator Sanders asked me and [longtime adviser Jeff] Weaver to reach out to our Biden friends and see what would be available if we were to bring these worlds together,” Shakir said.
The friends in question were Ron Klain and Anita Dunn, two establishment Democrats. There are actually two lefts within the Sanders orbit. One I would call the “outside left,” the hard-shell “Bernie-or-bust” contingent referred to above: younger, more New York–centered, strident, and absolutist. The “inside left,” which includes people like Shakir, who has a Washington pedigree—he has worked for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—sees value in urging the moderate (and elected) figures left. This group does have respect for people like Klain, a frequent and fierce critic of Donald Trump on MSNBC who, as Obama’s Ebola response coordinator, showed the world a few short years ago that the United States of America actually knew how to contain a virus.
In fact, the lines of communication between the campaigns predated Sanders’s dropping out. As the virus descended in the first half of March, the two camps negotiated the mutual canceling of events; they agreed before the last pre-lockdown debate, on March 15, to replace a handshake with an elbow bump. Through late March, as the toll of illness rose, they generally kept each other apprised of their actions. After Sanders withdrew, the discussions between the two turned more toward substance—and the extent to which Biden would be willing to adopt pieces of the Sanders agenda. Thus were formed the six task forces that the Biden campaign unveiled on May 13. These eight-member groups cover the economy, health care, immigration, criminal justice, climate, and education, and each is co-chaired by one Biden supporter and one Sanders supporter.
The left-wing presence on many of them is remarkable. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez co-chairs the climate panel with John Kerry. Representative Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, a major Sanders backer, co-chairs the health care task force with Obama surgeon general Vivek Murthy. The economist Stephanie Kelton, a top Sanders adviser and proponent of Modern Monetary Theory, which holds that the government should pay for major new investments like the Green New Deal by printing more money, is on the economic task force. The task forces, I’m told, have a threefold mission: to publicly recommend the policy positions that Biden should run on, to guide the writing of the party platform, and to inform the transition, should Biden win the election (assuming there is an election, or an uncorrupted one). It stands to reason that some of the members of these task forces might also fill important slots in a Biden administration.
Of course, it’s in both sides’ interest to cooperate to defeat Trump. But what a difference this is from 2016, when, after losing to Hillary Clinton in the primaries in early June, Sanders allowed bitterness to fester well into the summer. The difference can be credited to a few factors: Biden and Sanders get along fairly well personally, and Biden understands that he needs to take the left seriously. But easily the dominant factor is the virus. Biden, by most accounts, has been a different man since the pandemic hit. Last year, he sometimes spoke of his presidency as a return to a pre-Trump era. Now, with unemployment nearing 15 percent and calls for change from protesters becoming more urgent—and with the crisis starkly laying bare the economic precarity in which so many Americans were living even before the virus hit—he sees himself in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, a leader who would rise to the vast challenge history has thrust upon him and introduce sweeping change. The change in Biden has sometimes been overstated. But it is real, and it makes the prospect of a Biden presidency (provided it’s combined with Democratic capture of the Senate) far more intriguing than it was just two months ago.
One of the oldest truisms of presidential politics is that candidates run to the left or right (respectively) during the primary and to the center in the general election. But since he became the presumptive nominee, Joe Biden has moved left. In mid-March, he adopted a version of Elizabeth Warren’s free-college plan. On April 9, partly in response to the pandemic, he announced that as president he would seek to lower the eligibility age for Medicare from sixty-five to sixty, which could extend Medicare to another 23 million people (including at least a million in Florida and at least 500,000 each in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio).1
In neither of these cases did Biden fully embrace the Warren or Sanders position. His free-college plan would stop once a family’s income hit $125,000, whereas Warren’s had no income limits (the liberal-left critique of all such “free college for everyone” plans is that they constitute an unnecessary subsidy for well-off children, a critique Biden’s approach avoids). And on Medicare, Biden didn’t get close to Sanders’s version of Medicare for All, with its elimination of private insurance. Even so, these were, for a number of elected Democratic officials and liberal activists I spoke with, head-turning moves—testament both to the left’s increased strength within the Democratic Party, and to a surprising willingness on Biden’s part to play ball with a party faction that for most of his almost half-century in politics has been weak and easy to take for granted.
The rhetorical change has been even more striking. In an interview with Biden on April 7, the day before Sanders ended his campaign (which Biden must have known he was about to do), CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Biden what kind of economic situation he thought he would face if elected. The former vice-president said:
I think it may not dwarf, but eclipse what FDR faced…. We have an opportunity, Chris, to do so many things now to change some of the structural things that are wrong, some of the structural things we couldn’t get anybody’s attention on.
That seemed a signal that Biden’s moves had been more than the usual placating of a constituency whose support he needed—that his very thinking had changed, and in major part thanks to Covid-19. It’s not so much that the virus has moved Biden to the left. Rather, it has nudged reality leftward, and Biden has followed.
More recently, the May 25 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the subsequent protests in cities across America have led Biden to speak with force and eloquence about racial injustice. In a June 2 speech at Philadelphia’s City Hall, he said “the moment has come to deal with systemic racism” and spoke of the need for “long-overdue changes” like a congressional law against chokeholds, ending the provision of military weaponry to police forces, and creating a National Police Oversight Commission. These may not sound dramatic in the abstract, but each would be enormously controversial.
Officially, his campaign denies a dramatic change. “We feel we never got enough credit for being progressive in the first place,” a Biden aide told me, before pointing me to a McClatchy newspaper story from last fall that compared Biden’s and Hillary Clinton’s platforms and found Biden’s “more ambitious and liberal” on health care, climate, criminal justice, and more. “On nearly every major issue,” the article said, “Biden has either exponentially increased the scope of what Clinton proposed or advocated for new ideas that most Democrats would have up until recently considered fringe.”2
That may be. But to many people, and young people in particular, the Biden program didn’t look very progressive compared to Sanders and Warren. And it must be said that Biden is not on his way to capturing the Democratic nomination because of his program. He is the putative nominee because he seemed to the greatest number of Democratic voters to be the safest bet. His ideology, meaning his non-leftism, had something to do with that—there was an undeniable panic among Democratic voters in South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states about sending someone with Sanders’s platform into battle against Trump. But other factors were also important: voters’ familiarity with Biden, his relationship to the beloved Obama, and, let’s face it, his gender and race (it is perhaps inevitable that a primary that started with several women and people of color came down to the two best-known white men).
Democratic voters, pre-pandemic, were content with restoration: trying to clean up Trump’s wreckage and making incremental improvements on Obama’s achievements. But they, and their presumed candidate, appear to see things differently now. Biden’s remark to Chris Cuomo suggests a recognition that history has thrust him into a new role: that his job is not simply to defeat Trump and restore America to pre-Trumpian normality, but to make the case to America that that normality was never good enough.
What’s really important is what this reconsideration implies. Biden might now be willing to depart from the economic principles that have governed policy-making in this country over the last forty years: the so-called neoliberal principles of free markets, little government intervention or investment, wariness about deficits, and more. He might be willing, that is, to cast off the values and policies that have given us our era’s raging inequality, this uber-class of billionaires, this ethos of the deserving versus the undeserving. Republican administrations have embraced those principles fully—except when it comes to deficits, on which the GOP is completely unprincipled and hypocritical3—but our two recent Democratic administrations have also at times done so, as when Obama began talking about deficit reduction in early 2010. The Obama experience was a bitter one for a lot of people who hoped for more public investment in infrastructure, health care, and climate initiatives. “Obama and his team’s acquiescence in—indeed, public endorsement of—the turn to austerity in 2010 was absolutely fucking disastrous,” the UC Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong, who served in the Clinton administration, told me.
To put substance to his words, Biden will have to defy decades of conventional wisdom on deficits and push for major public investments. “He’s not going to just disregard [the deficit], as, say, Republicans do when they cut taxes,” one of his aides told me. “But he understands the urgency very well, and what the economic costs are to this society that the pandemic is showing us.”
I spoke with an outside adviser who has talked with Biden as part of group conversations about his agenda, and who told me that Biden understands full well everything I laid out above. This person acknowledged the inevitable pressure from deficit hawks, owing to the economic effects of the virus and to Trump’s tax cuts, but said there is a rough consensus within Biden’s circle: “He’s going to inherit a debt-to-GDP ratio of about 115 percent. But if the Democrats let the debt-to-GDP ratio block their agenda, we’re not going to get anywhere.” (A ratio of 115 percent would be the highest on record, just surpassing the ratio at the end of World War II.) The comparison to FDR indicates, the adviser offered, “the gravity of the moment—comparing the Great Depression to now, and how people just keep getting battered by market failures, and how they’re totally uninsulated by an underfunded public sector.”
Except among the element of the left that continues to doubt, distrust, and even despise Biden, this changed perception of him is widely shared. Felicia Wong, the head of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank associated with an economic agenda that is aggressive on raising wages and fighting inequality, told me, “Vice President Biden has recognized increasingly that our problems are structural, not just cyclical”—a distinction implying that matters will not just correct themselves. She said she was especially impressed by Biden’s embrace of “massive green investments.”
Certainly, the Republicans have noticed. One Trump campaign Facebook ad proclaimed that Biden is “not so different from radical socialist Bernie Sanders,”4 a theme the president has sounded on Twitter and in press conferences and interviews. Biden is no socialist (and the Trump campaign would have called him one no matter what). But it’s worth asking, even so, whether he’s moving too far left, in such a way that it could hurt his chances in November.
Trump will have his loyal 45 percent of the electorate (unless the pandemic worsens in the fall and the bottom completely falls out of the economy, perhaps). Because there were two prominent third-party candidates in 2016, Trump managed to win with 46.1 percent of the vote (Clinton got more, 48.2 percent, but Trump won the Electoral College). This year, it doesn’t appear that there will be any high-profile third-party candidacies, and it appears further that many who voted Green or Libertarian four years ago on the grounds that it didn’t matter since Clinton was going to win anyway will think differently this time around and be more intent on defeating Trump.
This means Trump would need to get 50 percent, or close to it. He may be hard-pressed to do so on the basis of his record—even in a hopeful scenario from his point of view, the unemployment rate in November may still be above 10 percent (the Congressional Budget Office projects 11.7 percent).5 So the only way to get there—and in any case the only way that is consonant with Trump’s toxic modus operandi—is to smear Biden as (1) corrupt and (2) a closet Marxist.
The “corrupt” narrative, which Trump has been banging at since last year with respect to Biden’s son Hunter and his Ukraine business dealings, has not taken hold so far. A May Quinnipiac national poll found respondents rating Biden as far more honest than Trump (47 percent of people said Biden was honest, while 41 percent said he wasn’t; the percentages for Trump were 34 to 62 percent, respectively). Such attacks might have some impact, after thousands of deceitful Facebook ads this fall. But it seems a stretch to think that a critical mass of genuine swing voters will decide that if corruption is their concern, Trump is their candidate.
That leaves socialism. Here’s the interesting thing about Biden’s recent repositioning: he has pulled it off while managing not to embrace any full-on left-wing positions. He endorsed free college—but only to a point. He endorsed Medicare expansion—but, again, only to a point. His climate plan calls for getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which leftier groups want to get to by 2030. Biden would limit new fracking, but he would not touch existing wells. Environmentalists don’t like this, but it should help him win Pennsylvania, a state with more than seven thousand fracking wells.
As is often the case in politics, some of this is symbolic and gestural—what emerges from the actual legislative process will inevitably be a dissatisfying compromise. Climate activists have a point when they insist that we don’t have time for dissatisfying compromises, but it’s hard to imagine our political system producing anything else. At the same time, the Democrats often suffer from a problem many refer to as “negotiating with themselves.” Start at 2030 as the target instead of 2050, says this school of thought, and see what it gets you.
In that sense, what constitutes “left” can be highly subjective at times—a matter of rhetorical emphasis and the use of certain buzzwords more than actual policy. Two Democrats can have essentially identical policies, but if one presents those policies as “prudence” and the other presents them as a challenge to “corporate power,” those Democrats will have vastly different public personas.
So Biden’s current shift is probably less a policy shift than a persona shift. But we shouldn’t gainsay the potential importance of persona shifts. They can lead politicians to change their emphasis and their actual priorities. For example, Biden has a pretty aggressive anticorruption agenda. He would eliminate the trust loophole in financial disclosure law, which lets politicians shield their assets from public scrutiny, and impose a broad range of other reforms. These are issues of great concern to Elizabeth Warren. A source inside the Warren camp told me that a “commitment to unilaterally enforce these standards in the executive branch could be transformative.” For a Biden tacking to the center, his plan would just be words on paper. But maybe the Biden who is presenting himself as a liberal crusader—and who has cultivated a relationship with Warren, which he didn’t have a few months ago—would put more political capital behind these issues.
Warren has emerged as a front-runner to be Biden’s vice-presidential pick. She would make the left swoon. California senator Kamala Harris, the other seeming front-runner, would not. She is also a former prosecutor, an especially fraught credential in the current setting. But she is African-American (and Asian-American; her mother is from India and her father is Jamaican), and Biden owes a great debt to black voters, who arguably shut the door on Sanders and lifted Biden to the nomination. Warren’s potential is also complicated by the fact that Massachusetts has a Republican governor, Charlie Baker, who could appoint her replacement, although there appear to be ways to get around that.6 Biden’s selection of a running mate will be perhaps the most consequential of his upcoming decisions, and even though vice-presidential nominees rarely end up mattering very much, a great deal will be read into it.
Jon Cowan, who heads the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way, says he believes that Biden has gone big without going left. “Big does not equal left,” Cowan told me. “This is the primary political and intellectual fallacy now being committed in the conventional wisdom crowd.” In the sense that Medicare at sixty is “not left” because it isn’t Medicare for All, Cowan has a point. But it’s still big.
The relevant question for November is whether Trump can convince a few tens of thousands of voters in crucial states that Biden’s platform is socialist. Cowan thinks not. He says Third Way tracked every ad that GOP congressional candidates ran against Democrats in 2018. They called practically everyone a socialist, he says, but if the Democrat had not embraced, say, Medicare for All, the charge just didn’t stick. “If you are a socialist, they buy the charge,” he says, “and if you aren’t, most people don’t.”
I spoke with Stuart Stevens, a former Republican political consultant who advised both Bush-Cheney in 2000 and Romney-Ryan in 2012. Stevens, disgusted with his old party, told me he considers himself a Democrat now. Be that as it may, he is attuned to a certain kind of moderate or anti-Trump Republican voter who might want to vote for Biden. Was there any risk, I asked, that Biden might be alienating these voters? “No, I don’t think Biden is moving too much to the left,” Stevens said. “He needs to motivate nonwhite turnout. They don’t need one Trump voter.”
Stevens explained that in 2016, black and Latino turnout fell for the first time in twenty years. “Romney lost Wisconsin, Trump won Wisconsin,” he told me. “But Romney got more votes than Trump.7 The difference was 50,000 fewer votes in Milwaukee.” Whether that was lack of enthusiasm or voter suppression, we can’t say, but either way, Stevens argues that Biden’s likeliest path to victory is through energizing as many elements of the Democratic coalition as he can. If that’s the task, “moving left” for the general election, antithetical as it is to history and tradition, may actually help.
Any discussion of what a President Biden could accomplish would be fantasy if it did not take into account the Senate. By now, you don’t have to be a sophisticated political observer to know that if Mitch McConnell and the Republicans control the Senate, Biden’s agenda, no matter what its scope and ambition, is dead. This would lead to two years of frustration, and, possibly, the Republicans retaking the House in 2022.
Everything depends, then, on the Democrats holding the House (no one expects otherwise at this point) and recapturing the Senate. Over the course of the spring, as Trump’s approval ratings have dropped, experts see Democrats’ chances of doing that increasing. Many observers now believe that four Republican incumbents are in serious danger of losing (Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina). Another five face tough challenges, in such unlikely states as Kansas, Montana, and Georgia (both seats in Georgia). The current GOP advantage is 53–47. One Democratic incumbent, Doug Jones of Alabama, seems headed to defeat, so the Democrats need to gain four seats to have a majority.
But even if Democrats do retake the Senate, the rules are such that a simple majority is very limited in what it can pass, because a supermajority of sixty votes is required in most cases to cut off debate before the vote on final passage.8 This explains the growing movement among Senate Democrats toward some kind of filibuster reform. Under Senate rules, the majority party can do away with or change the filibuster on the first day of a new session of Congress—which is exactly what January 3, 2021, will be—with a simple majority vote.
The leader of this effort is Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley. Senate sources tell me that he is trying to interest his Democratic colleagues in a motion that would not eliminate the filibuster entirely but would require the minority to engage in a real, “talking filibuster” if they want to block majority legislation. Right now, all a senator has to do to invoke the supermajority requirement is file what’s called a cloture motion. The mere filing of the motion amounts to a filibuster, in essence. Under Merkley’s idea, the minority would have to mount a real, Mr. Smith–style filibuster, holding the floor endlessly, having the Senate custodians haul out the cots (yes, the Senate owns one hundred cots).
How much would that change things? It’s hard to say. The hope is that the negative publicity that almost always accompanies a filibuster would deter the minority, especially if the legislation in question was popular (a minimum wage increase, a jobs bill, an infrastructure bill, a bill on voting rights). It may work. In any case, it’s probably the best solution that the Democrats can hope to get fifty-one votes to support. “There are a lot of Democrats who are real traditionalists and don’t want to see change,” a Merkley aide told me. “But this tradition”—of filing cloture motions on nearly every piece of legislation—“only dates to the 1970s.”
Joe Biden may have assumed Rooseveltian ambitions. But one thing he’ll never have is Rooseveltian congressional majorities—in his first Congress, 313 Democrats in the House and fifty-nine in the Senate (plus two minor-party senators who were pro–New Deal). If history hands Biden the opportunity to lead this country out of Trumpism, out of the pandemic, and out of four decades of stark class warfare, he’ll need to accept that the Senate is not the same place whose doors he first walked through in 1973. Biden has jumped a few psychic hurdles in these recent months, but that will be the most important one.
—June 4, 2020
Chris Sloan, Neil Rosacker, Ellyn Frohberg, “Nearly 23M Individuals May Be Eligible for Medicare Coverage Under Biden Proposal,” Avalere, April 21, 2020. ↩
Alex Roarty, “Biden Is Labeled a Moderate. But His Agenda Is Far More Liberal Than Hillary Clinton’s,” McClatchy, September 10, 2019. ↩
Republicans, it is often mordantly observed, care about deficits only when Democrats are in power. When they’re in power, they pass big tax cuts and run up the deficit; then, when the next Democrat is in the White House and tries to propose some modest spending, they start screaming, “But the deficit!” ↩
Jack Brewster, “Trump Campaign Facebook Ad Strategy: Paint Biden as a Socialist,” Forbes, April 13, 2020. ↩
Phil Swagel, “CBO’s Current Projections of Output, Employment, and Interest Rates and a Preliminary Look at Federal Deficits for 2020 and 2021,” CBO Blog, April 24, 2020. ↩
See, for example, Joshua Green, “Elizabeth Warren’s Path to Becoming VP Is Easier Than It Looks,” Bloomberg Businessweek, May 18, 2020. It’s convoluted, but in sum, the heavily Democratic state legislature could change the succession law, denying Baker the right to appoint a successor. ↩
This is accurate; 1,408,746 to 1,405,284, according to The New York Times. ↩
See my “The Specter Haunting the Senate,” The New York Review, September 30, 2010. ↩