We need to talk more about the ideological divide in the Democratic Party. The mainstream media will barely acknowledge it, much less cover it, but it’s going to have major repercussions in November.
Joe Biden’s string of endorsements this week belie not just his fundamental weakness as a candidate but also the seemingly impossible task of uniting his party for the general election. Former President Barack Obama’s endorsement of his erstwhile vice president and presumptive nominee was notable mostly for how late it was in coming—after Sen. Bernie Sanders’ tepid endorsement on Monday and after all other possible options had been eliminated.
The Obama endorsement was quickly followed by an endorsement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday. She ended her campaign in early March after failing to win a single state—including her home state of Massachusetts, where she finished third—or attract a solid support base among primary voters.
The 1-2-3 timing of these endorsements was no doubt meant as a show of unity, and Obama’s stamp of approval was meant to convey confidence and strength. But coming so late after Super Tuesday, when it became clear that Biden was the only candidate with a viable path to nomination, these endorsements instead convey weakness and exhaustion, which is precisely what Biden has been projecting in recent interviews.
Appearances aside, this coordinated push for the appearance of unity can’t paper over the profound divisions between the Democratic establishment and the far-left wing of the party, represented by Sanders until this week. Now that Sanders is finished, the mantle of progressive leadership passes to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she does not appear to be in a unifying mood.
In a recent New York Times interview, AOC said the Biden camp would have to do more than throw progressives “a couple of bones” to get them on board, referring to the Biden campaign’s recent support for student loan bailouts and lowering the age for Medicare to 60—proposals meant to be an olive branch to leftists. AOC didn’t see it that way. She called the Medicare idea “almost insulting.”
“The whole process of coming together should be uncomfortable for everyone involved — that’s how you know it’s working. And if Biden is only doing things he’s comfortable with, then it’s not enough,” she said.
Certainly, Biden has been doing things he’s not comfortable with over the past year. Progressive Democrats have pushed the entire party so far to the left that Biden, once considered a moderate, has had to repudiate much of his own political legacy and gradually adopt most of Sanders’s socialist agenda.
Will that be enough for the likes of AOC? Probably not. In a January profile in New York Magazine, she said, “in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” She’s right about that. Biden’s entire pitch is for a return to normalcy, to an Obama-style White House and Obama-era policies.
But that’s unlikely to mollify leftists, who see the Obama years as a disappointment at best. In that Times interview, AOC admitted as much, saying progressives “need a real plan to be better than what happened during [Biden’s] service with the Obama administration.”
How Far to the Left Will Biden Have to Lurch?
Biden and the Democratic establishment now face a dilemma. Do they try to placate the far left enough to win their enthusiastic support or appeal to more moderate voters, independents, and centrist Democrats, even disaffected Republicans, in an attempt to build a national coalition that can beat Trump? Traditionally, presumptive nominees swing back to the center for the general election, but it’s not at all clear that Biden can afford to do that without losing the support of his party’s left wing.
But he also can’t afford to go full woke. Most political observers look at what happened to leftist candidates during the primary, whether it was younger up-and-comers trying to out-woke each other or Sanders and Warren battling over who had the better Medicare for All plan, and rightly conclude that Democratic voters—to say nothing of Americans at large—aren’t quite ready for a socialist revolution.
Not AOC. She looks at the defeat of Sanders and Warren and the other far-leftists and somehow concludes that Americans really did want what those candidates were offering. When the Times noted Biden got where he is today by rejecting far-left policies, AOC said she doesn’t think Biden won “because of policy,” and that most Americans actually want progressive policies even if they don’t vote for candidates who support them:
I want to respect his win, he won because of his coalition building, he won because of his service, he won for a lot of different reasons — but I don’t think he won because Americans don’t want ‘Medicare for all.’ And in this moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if what we’re seeing with coronavirus didn’t further change people’s views in further support of a progressive agenda.
For now, Biden seems to be trying to have it both ways. This week he reveled in Obama’s endorsement this week—and all the pre-Trump nostalgia that comes with it—but last week he struck a different note, declared that the next round of coronavirus pandemic relief must include things like student debt relief and “help for people who were already struggling to get by before the coronavirus.”
If this is what the Biden campaign’s plan amounts to, swinging from Obama-era normalcy to Sanders-style leftism, Democrats might well be in for a shock come November.