Liberals turned out for Joe Biden this year in greater numbers than they did for Hillary Clinton not because, in the words of New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he is “their favorite person” but in order to have influence in the White House again. “Our first task [is that] we've got to defeat the worst president in modern history in this country, and No. 2, we organize our people to make sure that Biden becomes the most progressive president since FDR,” said Bernie Sanders, the man Biden bested for the Democratic nomination and a top Ocasio-Cortez ally.
If personnel is policy, as the saying in Washington goes, the most doctrinaire progressives in the Democratic Party have to be getting a little concerned. While no one would confuse Biden’s incoming administration with President Trump’s, centrist and establishment Democrats have taken the lion’s share of the announced Cabinet and White House staff positions. And while it is still early, the Ocasio-Cortez/Sanders wing of the party has so far been shut out of the major policymaking roles.
Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress in the first place, bought ads in the swing states of Arizona and Pennsylvania urging supporters to hold their noses and vote for Biden. “Look, maybe you don't like the other guy running for president,” a woman says in the spot. “I get it. I don't like anyone right now. But could you do me a favor? Take 10 minutes this November and f—ing vote.”
“Progressives understand what’s at stake in this election,” Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director, said in a pragmatic statement. “A straightforward ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ ad like this can cut through for Joe Biden.” So, it is noteworthy that Justice Democrats didn’t make it past November before critiquing Biden’s staffing decisions.
“A Biden administration dominated by corporate-friendly insiders will not help usher in the most progressive Democratic administration in generations. … Progressives find corporate-friendly Biden appointments unacceptable,” the group posted on Twitter after ex-lobbyist Steve Ricchetti was announced as counselor to the president and Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat seen as friendly to oil and gas interests, as senior adviser.
“If Joe Biden continues making corporate-friendly appointments to his White House, he will risk quickly fracturing the hard-earned goodwill his team built with progressives to defeat Donald Trump,” Rojas said in a statement. At least 40 members of the Biden transition team have been registered lobbyists.
Even Republicans are taking notice. After spending the year warning that Biden would unleash socialist revolutionaries if elected, they have begun to recalibrate their attacks. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who once complained Biden would be “in thrall” to the “Marxist Left,” now describes the president-elect’s Cabinet as a “bunch of corporate liberals and warmongers.”
This is far from a unanimous point of view, however. “Personally, it seems like a decent balance of views so far in his Cabinet and inner circle, which is a great thing,” said Democratic strategist Stefan Hankin. “Of course, that doesn't seem to stop Democrats from forming the circular firing squad. Literally why we can't have nice things.”
The Left has as of this writing succeeded in delaying the nomination of a secretary of defense, a post for which Michele Flournoy was favored. She was deemed too hawkish and as possibly having conflicts of interest by many liberals, and the position was left vacant when the rest of Biden’s national security team was rolled out. Progressives did not get Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as treasury secretary, but they did not get a veteran of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, with its history of advocating for deficit reduction in the 1990s, either.
“I'm actually not concerned at all about infighting amongst Democrats with the selections thus far,” said Democratic strategist Jessica Tarlov. “[Budget chief pick] Neera Tanden was preferable to Bruce Reed for Sanders folks, [Treasury Secretary nominee Janet] Yellen has gotten universal praise, and the nat sec folks so far have all gotten support. Biden is holding true to his word by appointing people that will satisfy the poles of the party.”
But many liberals regard even the Obama administration, led by a president for whom they have far greater affection than Biden, as an incrementalist disappointment, and many veterans of that White House are set to return to power in January. “Today, as a liberal administration enters office on comparatively weak political ground, and amid political exhaustion, activists and left-wing lawmakers will feel yet more pressure to temper their agitation and stick to partisan deference,” Luke Savage wrote in an Atlantic essay arguing the Left needs an alternative to knee-jerk support for a Democratic president — even a relatively popular one.
“In the short term, pursuing and strengthening this alternative will require sustained public pressure on the incoming administration, particularly with regard to Cabinet appointments,” Savage continued. “In the longer term, it will require standing firm on marquee progressive priorities while consistently meeting Biden’s conservative instincts with a countervailing force.”
“If we win the Senate, then I do think the administration should be open to more aggressive appointments, or, rather, appointments who would support a more aggressive agenda to help working families,” Ocasio-Cortez told CNN. “I think it's one of the most simply damaging things that could happen to the Democratic Party, that would absolutely imperil us in 2022, is if we had a bunch of austerity people, or an austerity strategy and austerity mindset.” By that descriptor, she means centrist Democrats concerned about budget deficits and the national debt.
Left-wing Democrats who hoped a President Biden would simply function as a signature machine for their top priorities, shredding the filibuster and expanding the Supreme Court regardless of his own institutionalist inclinations, have other reasons to expect their ambitions might be frustrated. The anticipated blue wave turned out to be more of a drizzle. Democrats did not make major gains in the Senate — their best-case scenario if they win a pair of runoff elections in Georgia next year is a 50-50 divided Senate in which their majority is contingent on Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote — and actually lost seats in the House.
Republicans are unlikely to be shut entirely out of power even if they fail to retain the Senate, forcing Biden to reset expectations for his legislative agenda. When he became vice president under Barack Obama in 2009, Democrats enjoyed three-fifths majorities in both houses of Congress and still struggled to pass Obamacare. Executive actions, which Trump has demonstrated can easily be reversed by the next administration, will automatically become a bigger part of how Biden governs.
“Assuming the Senate majority stays with Republicans, you'll see the Biden administration start with a pen and a cellphone, where Obama started with the majority and ended with a pen and a cellphone,” said a top conservative operative.
The composition of Congress will also heighten the tensions between centrist and left-liberal Democrats. The centrists are nervous about their seats, and the Democratic majority, in the 2022 midterm elections. Many of them faced unexpectedly competitive races this time around or even lost, a fact they attribute to loose talk about socialism and defunding the police. The most liberal Democrats, on the other hand, were already hoping for a more far-reaching agenda than Biden’s on healthcare and climate change. If there is any backsliding, they will seek to be the “countervailing force” Savage mentioned.
But many of these tensions were baked into the way Biden campaigned and, indeed, his nature as a political leader. The formula was pioneered by Richard Nixon: Embrace your party’s ideological wing during the primaries and then tack back to the center in the general election. In Nixon’s case, that meant running to the Right and then moving back toward the middle after becoming the nominee. For a conventional Democrat, it means running to the Left and then the center.
Biden’s path to the nomination was far more convoluted. He entered the Democratic primaries as the closest thing to a centrist among the top-tier candidates, though, eventually, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg attempted to compete for some of those voters. He also wanted to tie himself very close to Obama, while the candidates running to his left were implicitly running on activist disenchantment with the previous Democratic administration.
At first, Biden seemed to be courting disaster. But then, one by one, his opponents imploded. Buttigieg’s negligible black support raised questions about his ability to forge a coalition broad enough to beat Trump. Bloomberg pursued a bizarre strategy of avoiding the early primaries, something that had failed for fellow former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the Republican side 12 years earlier, and bombed in the debates. Sanders failed to expand beyond his 2016 base, and when he briefly looked like the prohibitive front-runner, a majority of the Democratic electorate recoiled in horror. The beneficiary of this freakout was Biden, who, after abysmal showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, won South Carolina in a landslide and never looked back.
Having successfully run to Sanders’s right in the primaries, rejecting Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the socialist label, Biden now faced a dilemma: how to turn out the Vermont senator’s supporters in the general election. Clinton had failed to do so in key battleground states four years ago, and Trump intended to replicate his own strategy of trying to poach the gettable Bernie voters and demoralize the others. So, ahead of the Democratic convention, Biden moved left, teaming with Sanders supporters on a “unity agenda” that appeared to walk back much of his centrism.
Then, having accepted the nomination, Biden once again tacked back to the center. He refused to endorse marijuana decriminalization, much less defunding the police. He might have been slow to denounce the more violent protests that broke out following George Floyd’s death in police custody, but denounce them he eventually did. He reiterated his opposition to Medicare for All, backed off a fracking ban, and pledged to raise taxes only on those making more than $400,000 a year. He equivocated on court-packing even as Amy Coney Barrett hurtled toward confirmation.
Trump tried to drive a wedge between Biden and Sanders, just as he did with Clinton in 2016. Biden seemed happy to oblige. “The fact of the matter is, I beat Bernie Sanders,” he said in a debate, accusing Trump of being confused about whom he was running against. Biden also distanced himself from the unity plan, which Trump called “the manifesto” to enhance its left-wing sound. “The platform of the Democratic Party is what I, in fact, approved of,” the former vice president said.
“You just lost the Left,” Trump responded triumphantly. “You just lost the Left. You agreed with Bernie Sanders on a plan.” But it wasn’t to be. This time, Trump was the incumbent, and the Left was ready to defeat him, even with an imperfect candidate. He was right about the contradictions in Biden’s coalition, however.
At the same time Democrats were promising the most progressive administration since FDR, they were showcasing Republicans at their national convention who downplayed the extent of Biden’s liberalism. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, for example, got more airtime than Ocasio-Cortez. “I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat,” Kasich said. “They believe he may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that. I know the measure of the man. Reasonable. Faithful, respectful, and no one pushes Joe around.”
This was an overt denial of the Squad’s ability to shove Biden leftward in office. These two campaign promises, pursuing full progressivism while not leaving Republican supporters behind, are irreconcilable. And an electoral coalition that stretches from Sanders to Kasich, while good for 51.3% of the national popular vote, is likely to disappoint one or the other when it comes time to govern. Moe Vela, a former top adviser to Biden, said Trump was the “glue” that held it together.
For now, that is good enough. Trump has yet to concede the presidential race and is still contesting the results in multiple states, alleging that voter fraud accounts for Biden’s narrow margins in these battlegrounds. He is still in office and may begin campaigning for 2024 immediately if he leaves. But at some point, unless Trump’s long-shot legal strategies prevail, the page will turn to Biden.
To many in Biden’s circle, the lesson of the 2020 election is that the Online Left could be ignored with impunity. “This is mostly an inside-the-Beltway, Twitter thing though,” said Hankin, the Democratic strategist. “The percent of Americans who care about, or pay attention to, Cabinet picks is probably in the single digits.” Even liberals largely spurned Warren’s performative wokeness in favor of Sanders’s class-based socialism before Biden won the nomination with relative ease.
Establishment Republicans once asked where else disgruntled conservatives had to go. That was before the Tea Party — and Trump. A similar dynamic could be at work on the Left. “In recent years, organizations like Justice Democrats have made insurgent primary challenges against conservative incumbents a semi-regular occurrence,” writes Savage. “As a direct result of those efforts, the left now counts more nationally recognizable figures among its congressional ranks than at any other point in recent history; 2018 newcomers like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are set to be joined by the likes of Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Mondaire Jones.”
Then there is the nature of Biden’s leadership itself. Before the Obama White House, he spent 36 years in the Senate. He has watched many permutations of the Democratic Party come and go, which explains his alliances with everyone from segregationists to socialists over the past half-century. His experience chairing important committees was leading through consensus, something that helped him win over suburban voters who rejected Trump — and too-left down-ballot Democrats. But that is a very different kind of leadership than running the executive branch, and it remains to be seen whether it is suited to today’s Democrats or take-no-prisoners Republicans who will be trying to unseat him the moment he takes office, possibly including Trump, who came very close in the Rust Belt despite running against “Working Class Joe,” himself.
Biden has spent decades trying to locate the center of gravity in the Democratic Party and position himself no more than a millimeter to its left or right. This entails following more than leading. During his own septuagenarian swan-song presidential campaign in 1996, Bob Dole made a promise to his party’s voters. “I'm willing to be another Ronald Reagan,” he offered, “if that's what you want.” Biden has won making a similar pitch to be another FDR or a great centrist unifier, if that’s what you want.
Neither can one ignore Kamala Harris. From gaffes about a “Harris-Biden administration” to thinly veiled promises that Biden is a transitional figure in the Democratic Party, she faces a very different set of political incentives than any recent vice president. Biden is 78, older on Inauguration Day than Reagan, the previous oldest president, was at the conclusion of two terms. While he did not pledge to serve only a single term, it is possible that Harris will be the candidate in 2024. Biden turns 80 shortly after the midterm elections, in which Democrats could lose still more congressional seats.
Rated the most liberal senator in 2019, Harris, a California Democrat, may see her political future tied to the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party rather than aging white centrists. While vice presidents such as Mike Pence or Dan Quayle might be deployed to reassure the more ideological members of their party, Harris could need them sooner rather than later.
“It will be super different than the Obama-Biden administration,” said the conservative operative. “Where there’s a fork in the road between deference and advancement for Kamala, the book on her is that she’s going for advancement every time.”
Democrats are investing a lot of hopes in Biden the elder statesman. Republicans suspect these hopes will be misplaced. “Ultimately, there will be a mutiny,” said the operative.
W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner's politics editor.
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