Go Left, Old Man

Bernie is out. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the Democratic campaign since its Super Tuesday inflection point, when in a matter of days the trajectory shifted from a probable Sanders nomination to the inevitability of Joe Biden, who had been left for roadkill after Iowa and New Hampshire. To put what happened in non-secular terms, it was the political equivalent of something widely celebrated today. With the pandemic putting a halt to campaigning and with Sanders mathematically eliminated from contention, Bernie’s departure from the race was a matter of when, not if, and for whatever reasons he chose this past week to suspend his efforts.

Now the real work begins for Biden. Bernie’s base is young, enthusiastic, and dedicated to him and his vision for a new American revolution. They have little use for the presumptive nominee, and he knows it. He will need to change that if Democrats are to go into November united, and while the party desperately wants to oust Donald Trump, Biden is shrewd enough not to assume that opposition to Trump will be enough to get him past the finish line. Between Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, about four in ten primary voters supported an agenda of structural change, what I have called the “go big” approach to the election. Their ideas drove the primary campaign, but in the end voters opted for the safety of a known quantity who for the better part of a year had been the spokesman for going backwards to happier times. To paraphrase the candidate himself, you could have reduced his message to a noun, a verb, and the “Obama/Biden” administration.

That backwards-looking message got Biden fourth place in Iowa, fifth place in New Hampshire, and left him without resources and on the verge of calling it quits before events took a U-turn in his direction. Ultimately, Biden won the nomination not because he was able to sell his party on the need to go back but because he was a safe harbor in a growing storm, the candidate voters rallied around to end the leadership disaster that is the Trump administration and restore the country after a public health and economic catastrophe.

To his credit, Biden seems to recognize this and has been moving swiftly to reposition himself to meet the moment and bring vanquished “go big” voters on board. His rhetoric has changed. He now speaks of himself as a bridge to the future. He envisions his administration as a bench for younger and, implicitly, more progressive leaders than himself. He is talking about creating a government that will look like America, a nod to the diversity of the Millennial and Z generations. He has been open to or fully embraced policies espoused by Sanders and Warren. It remains to be seen how far he will go to find common cause with progressives and would-be revolutionaries; what mix of rhetorical praise, government appointments and policy adjustments it will take to win their support; how enthusiastic that support will be; and how thoroughly they will get on board.  But he is making the right gestures. To unify the party, Biden is moving to the left. 

This is as extraordinary as the circumstances that led to the Biden nomination in the first place. And they are not unrelated. Typically a candidate is pulled toward a party’s ideological edges during the primaries in order to build a wide enough coalition to secure the nomination, then once nominated begins to moderate or qualify some of those positions in order to reach out to the broader electorate. Biden’s route was different. By winning the nomination in spite of his ideas and vision rather than because of them, he was able to win without the baggage of a candidate who had made concessions that needed to be repurposed for the general election — and without having to appeal to voters outside his base. So he’s starting to do it now. Hence, his move to the left at a time when other Democratic nominees from the center of the party would be tempering leftward positions they had taken months ago. 

Normally, moving toward the edges would pose an enormous general election problem, but the pandemic gives Biden a lot of room to maneuver. At this moment, no one is paying close attention to what he is doing, giving him cover to escape the deep scrutiny that normally follows from the non-stop coverage typically afforded a presumptive presidential nominee. Biden’s moderate brand gives him the latitude to put soft edges on policies which to date have pushed the limits of mainstream political debate. Most importantly, the pandemic is starting to scramble public opinion and create an appetite for big solutions to the raging public health and economic crisis. Biden can position himself as a pragmatic messenger for these changes and explain his shifting positions not as a political sop to the left but as the essential re-thinking of policy in a crisis.

This is not to say that Biden is going to go the Full Bernie on Medicare for All. Even Sanders acknowledges that Biden’s politics are different from his. But Biden doesn’t have to go there to unify the party and be successful in November. The crisis that helped Biden become the nominee is giving him cover to embrace an agenda that can potentially excite the left and speak to the concerns of a frightened nation. If he does it skillfully, he can win over disaffected progressives and still position himself safely in the middle of public opinion.