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Bernie-Biden Is a War for the Future of the Democratic Party

May 6, 2019
Bernie-Biden Is a War for the Future of the Democratic Party
Select all squares with a president (Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages)

On the day he announced his long-expected candidacy last month, Joe Biden headlined his first fundraiser of the cycle at the home of Comcast bigwig David Cohen. Within mere hours, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders sent out an email blast with his first public shot at the former vice president.

“It’s a big day in the Democratic primary and we’re hoping to end it strong,” the Sanders email read. “Not with a fundraiser in the home of a corporate lobbyist, but with an overwhelming number of individual donations.” The email’s subject line read “Joe Biden.”

Of all the storylines to keep track of in the crowded 2020 field, the rivalry between Biden and Bernie stands out. Part of this, of course, is that they are the frontrunners in pretty much every poll, usually grabbing approximate 35 percent and 15 percent market shares respectively. (Of the other twenty-odd-and-counting candidates, only Kamala Harris regularly breaks into the double digits.)

Just as important, however, are the ways in which the two candidates represent the two factions battling for the soul of the Democratic party. It may not be Biden or Sanders who ultimately carries the field, but it seems likely to be a Biden or a Sanders type. These factions differ on a number of specific policy issues—see the above tiff over corporate donors—but their most important disagreement at the moment relates to a pressing question of strategy: What version of the Democratic party is best suited to topple Trump?

The progressive wing of the party—the Bernie wing—makes a straightforward case: the status-quo Democrats had their chance to beat Trump in 2016 and they blew it.The president’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton was the death knell of the aisle-crossing, triangulating style that ruled the party from Bill Clinton’s presidency through Obama’s. (It’s worth keeping in mind that these are the same types who now denounce Obamacare as a right-wing policy, so it’s fair to take their definition of “moderate” with a grain of salt.)

The progressives believe that Americans are sick of a Democratic party that rails against the evils of exploitative capitalism while simultaneously cozying up with Big Business and Big Tech. That didn’t get out voters for Hillary. And neither did just being “not Trump.” Remember that Chuck Schumer infamously calculated that “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” In 2016, Trump picked up those blue-collar Dems and hung on to plenty of suburban Republicans too.

What is needed to beat Trump, the progressives argue, is to fully commit to a bold new agenda of economic justice designed to rally the left. This should entail enormous federal expansion on every level: single-payer healthcare, a federally financed free college system, and a Green New Deal—all financed by major tax increases on corporations and the wealthy.

Only by relentlessly pushing such an agenda, the Bernie wing argues, can the Democratic party break the fever of Trumpism.

The Biden wing disagrees. Some of these policies might be good ideas in theory, the Biden wing says, but don’t they sound a little, well, socialist? What’s needed to beat Trump is to get back to focusing on what unites us: good old universal American values, like properly condemning white nationalist violence and declining to congratulate foreign dictators when they’re reelected. Lurching to the hard left on policy is exactly what Trump wants us to do: He’d like nothing better than to cast himself as the champion of capitalist America versus the brooding menace of socialism. Let’s focus on getting Trump out first—and then we can figure out whether there’s anything to this Bernie Bro business.

We should stipulate that it’s possible that both of these factions could be correct. Or both could be incorrect. It’s possible that either an aggressively progressive campaign could reshuffle the map enough to beat Trump. And also that a centrist campaign could beat Trump.

Or that Trump could beat either of them.

But there is one contention about which we do know for certain that the Bernie wing is incorrect. When the progressive left says that moderate outreach is a futile quest, we have two data points showing the opposite. In 2016 Donald Trump did energize a whole cohort of white working-class voters, many of whom were former Democrats, and this proved instrumental in his 2016 victory. Similarly, moderate-messaging Democrats did successfully orchestrate a blue wave in the House in 2018, primarily by flipping GOP suburban strongholds where Trump-sick voters fled the party (or at least stayed home) en masse.

So in order to believe that outreach to moderate voters can’t work, then you have to believe that something has changed since last year.

Meanwhile, the Biden wing—the ostensible moderates—also have one strong strategic point: A vast swath of Americans will go into 2020 as the Democrats’ to lose. Polls consistently show that Trump is unpopular, with an approval rating generally hovering near 43 percent—at best. If Democrats are concerned with maximizing their chances of victory, the numbers suggest that they should avoid rocking the boat. This serves partially to explain why, in addition to Sanders taking pains to cast himself as the anti-Biden, Biden has also deliberately styled himself as the anti-Bernie: sticking up for the patriotism of the wealthy, distancing himself from “confiscatory” tax policies, insisting that America doesn’t need socialism.

But the Biden wing also has a problem: There’s a difference between embracing “moderation” in theory and developing a workable moderate praxis. By staking their “moderate” bona fides so tightly to economic issues, Democrats run the risk of trying to appeal to a coalition of voters that might no longer exist.

The Cold War may have been over for a generation, but the specter of socialism has not lost its power to frighten conservatives. They remember what communism looked like because anti-Communism was the foremost party dogma for half a century.

But while worrying about the dangers of socialism, conservatives have spent the last decade expanding the term to include a whole cadre of other horrors that Democrats, aided by big tech and a complicit media, are purportedly itching to unleash on America’s citizens—from “shadowbanning” conservatives online to confiscating people’s firearms to celebrating unlimited immigration to criminalizing increasingly broad swaths of speech as violence.

Some of these fears are reasonable—polling shows that Democrats and the left really are becoming hostile to robust interpretations of free speech. Some of these fears are, to put it charitably, unfounded. Certain gun control may or may not succeed legislatively, for example, but there is no serious discussion about repealing the second amendment.

And at the same time, conservatives seem to have abandoned the idea that Big Government is a possible road to socialism. Under Trump, the Republican party has given up on even the idea of reforming Social Security and Medicare. And actual expansions of the government’s power over markets—like the Trump administration’s tireless work to advance protectionist trade policies—have been met by conservatives with either a shrug or a cheer. Consider that as many as 30 percent of Republicans tell pollsters they would support a single-payer national healthcare program like Medicare for All. Some on the right—Tucker Carlson comes to mind, or Ann Coulter—have begun even to speak as though they would welcome an agenda of economic leftism centered on working-class uplift, so long as it could be extricated from a socially left agenda.

Remember: It was Sanders, not Biden, that Coulter—Ann Coulter!—recently suggested she’d begin to support if only he were to renege on his newly permissive immigration principles.

When they fret about the threat of the left, in other words, today’s Republicans and culturally conservative independents aren’t primarily motivated by fear that free markets will be further co-opted by big government. They’re worried, rather, that Democrats are trying to grind down all ways of life not pre-approved by the liberal state—one which, moreover, is increasingly exacting in its standards. It is a fear of cultural totalitarianism, rather than economic totalitarianism, and this is rolled under the umbrella threat of “socialism.”

What’s interesting is that the moderate wing of the Democratic party seems to have missed this shift entirely. The triangulation they offer—pro-Wall Street, pro-business, pro-trade, pro-growth—is a relic of an earlier era, when Republican voters actually believed that the best way to achieve broad prosperity was by a dramatic unleashing of economic markets. In 2016, Republican primary voters threw the supply-siders out on their ear; in 2019, moderate Democrats are still kissing the ring.

When it comes to the cultural concerns the Right primarily cares about today—life issues, say, or religious liberty—supposedly moderate Democrats have frequently failed to offer any concessions, even as a matter of optics. In fact, they’ve often turned to such issues as a way to make up lost ground, so to speak—to reassure progressives that they aren’t too moderate to be permitted to carry the Democratic banner. (Picture, for instance, the way some of the 2020 field’s other ostensible moderates, such as Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, have declined to distance themselves from the 2019 blue-state fad of removing their last vestiges of restrictions on late-stage abortions, opting instead to offer mealy-mouthed platitudes about how, at all times and in all places, decisions about the life of a fetus should be left to a mother and her chosen medical professional.

It isn’t hard to see why, all this being so, the progressive argument that moderate Democratic politics is a program of futile self-cuckery carries so much weight. Trying to be “moderate” doesn’t mean beans if one hasn’t accurately assessed what one’s opponents want and why. In 2016, Hillary Clinton exemplified this sour-spot approach, irritating progressives by playing up her capitalist bona fides one day, infuriating working-class Trump voters by talking smack about the “deplorables” the next. In her tone-deaf attempt to play the moderate, she merely ended up alienating critical parts of both sides.

Plainly, a new political triangulation will be necessary if any among the next generation of Democrats hope to occupy a “moderate” lane. Biden himself, his own Clintonesque Third-Way-triangulating past aside, could still theoretically own this space: his religious upbringing, blue-collar sympathies, and rhetoric of understanding rather than denouncement for communities of the insufficiently woke all make for a good start. But those qualities won’t amount to much if Biden fails to pair them with policies designed to dull the pain of unwoke communities as they come up against the sharp edge of the secular liberal state.

And it certainly seems as though even concessions at the margins could make an impact.

Imagine if Biden were to come out strongly in favor, say, of ensuring that religious people with sincere but illiberal views about sexual orientation and gender are protected from government persecution for those beliefs. Imagine if he were to argue that the Democratic party ought to return to Roe v. Wade’s own standard on abortion—that the mother’s right to privacy is to be given due weight, but that the state also reserves a gradually strengthening interest in protecting the rights of a viable fetus—that contra the current Democratic mood it should not be legal, no matter how rare the case, for a fetus to be aborted days before birth. Imagine if, on the issue of gun control, he were to concede the painfully obvious fact that “assault weapon” is a meaningless category of no legal use, and that cutting down on gun violence in America should be done not through a confiscatory program, but by working within the confines of the second amendment: expanding background checks, say, or cracking down on accessories such as high-capacity magazines.

The point here is not to suggest that Biden or other moderate Democrats ought to become Republicans. It’s merely to illustrate that, on any number of social issues, there exists a vast space in the policy margins in which a Democratic candidate who aspires to “moderation” could make good-faith gestures to reassure skittish Republicans—who fear that any step to the left merely hastens the advance of the totalitarian project of the liberal state—that such fears are unfounded. In the end, such an effort might even serve, rather than hinder, their policy aims by defanging some part of the Republican resistance to it.

Of course, just saying all of that out loud seems laughable. Can you actually imagine a top-tier Democratic candidate trying to offer even a marginal concession on abortion? Or religious freedom? (Gun control seems slightly more plausible.) Funnily enough, one suspects that the easiest way to make an overture would be on immigration. Simply saying that America ought to have strong borders might count as a Sister Soulja moment during this Great Awokening.

Biden, for his part, instead seems to be trying to burnish his image among the Democratic primary gatekeepers, apologizing for this or that past policy transgression and reaffirming his commitments to progressivism. Like O’Rourke, he seems content to allow his moderation to shape his policy agenda only to the extent of his fondness for capital.

There are several reasons why the sort of moderate politics I describe hasn’t taken hold within the Democratic party. Some of them are structural: Given that the Democrats most disposed to a politics of moderation are also the ones most disposed to leaving the basic capitalist structure of the economy alone, it makes sense that the place they attempt to find some common ground with Republicans is on economic issues. Meanwhile, the party’s economic left flank—the Bernies of the world whose primary message of class-based economic oppression theoretically dovetails with the class anxiety of Trump’s working-class supporters—are the cohort of Democrats least likely to see a strategy of moderating their message to try to win Independents and Republicans as moral, or even particularly useful.

But it’s also fair to question Democrats’ priorities. What’s more important: Advancing the policy agenda that progressives believe will assuage our national disease, or enforcing woke homogeneity within the progressive movement? Put the question this way: What if 2020 actually gave Democrats a nationwide mandate to pass their agenda of working-class uplift, but the price was that they had to be okay with letting working-class communities carry on in their benighted and reactionary ways?

Millions of Americans remain convinced that this a deal Democrats wouldn’t take—that it’s punitive nationwide enforcement of the left’s radical new set of cultural norms, not combating income inequality or the march of global capitalism, that is the sine qua non of today’s Democratic party.

If this view is wrong—well, it wouldn’t be hard for a Democratic candidate to show it so. So it behooves us to ask those claiming the mantle of “moderate”—why haven’t they?

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.